Jewish Choir recreates history at Air Force Academy

May 25, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

Jewish Choir recreates history at Air Force Academy

May 25, 2023

It all started with the connection of three seemingly unrelated people—a rabbi who was born in Australia but found a “call within a call” in the U.S. Air Force—a noted U.S. Air Force General—and a U.S. Air Force Academy freshman who is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors.

What brought them together was a photo of a choir from the 1970s and ’80s—a Jewish choir made up of U.S. Air Force cadets.

JEWISHcolorado Interim President and CEO, Renée Rockford, remembers her father, David Bram z”l, a Holocaust survivor, taking her to hear the choir at the Air Force Academy on Friday nights when she was a child growing up in Colorado Springs.

“My father had enormous respect for the U.S. Armed Services because it was the U.S. military that liberated him from the concentration camps in Europe at the end of World War II,” Rockford recalls. “At every opportunity, he supported and honored anyone who served and protected our country.

“Cadets were frequent guests at our Passover seders and Shabbat dinners. But to hear the cadets sing made him especially happy. I believe it was not only the songs and the Hebrew lyrics, but his constant hope in a new generation and the continuation of Jewish culture for which he paid such a high personal price.”

Rabbi Saul Rappeport, a Chaplain at the Air Force Academy, received the photo of that choir from some cadets who were doing research in the Academy’s extensive archives. The first Jewish Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Norton Schwartz (now retired), sang in the choir until he graduated in 1973.

When Rabbi Rappeport showed the photo and talked about the choir’s history at Shabbat services with the Air Force cadets, the idea caught the attention of Freshman Boaz Abramoff. “I asked myself, ‘Why don’t we have a Jewish choir?’” he says. “West Point and the Naval Academy, they both have a choir. It’s an important part of our culture, so why not us?”

Abramoff put the idea to Rabbi Rappeport who saw a chance to create a leadership opportunity for this young cadet. “We can bring the choir back,” he told Abramoff. “But it will be up to you to find the cadets.”

Restarting the music

Abramoff, who had some choral experience dating back to middle school, embarked on a recruitment mission, starting with sophomore Matt Sharkey. Sharkey—who is quick to point out that his opinions are his own and do not represent the Air Force or the Department of Defense—has been singing in choirs his entire life and also has musical theater experience. Even better, he could accompany the group on a keyboard. And he had the right attitude.

“Boaz was the mastermind, but I was all in from day one,” Sharkey says. “I thought it would be awesome to bring back the choir and have this Jewish presence in the community.”

Although he is not a trained or ordained cantor, Rabbi Rappeport grew up surrounded by music. He is an aficionado of Jewish liturgical, cantorial, Yiddish, and contemporary Israeli music. As a rabbi, he had led services as a cantor, and though he did not have much experience leading a choir, he did have experience with the world of music.

When the group first came together at the beginning of 2023, more than a dozen cadets showed up for rehearsal. The first piece they tried was Lewindowsky’s “Tzaddik KaTamar,” a melody they knew from Friday night services at the Academy.

“They did surprisingly well,” Rabbi Rappeport says. “We want these Jewish cadets to have this as a fun way to come together, spend time with each other, and engage with Jewish traditions in a meaningful way.”

Of course, since they are a choir at a service academy, they are learning “The Star Spangled Banner” in four-part harmony.

“The cadets said, ‘Can’t we learn Hatikvah?’,” Rabbi Rappeport says. “I said, ‘Yes, but first we have to start with our National Anthem.’”

On May 5, the choir made its debut at Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs. Rabbi Rappeport believes this was just the start.

“The cadets would not object to an invitation to sing at the White House Hanukkah party one year!” he says, with a chuckle. “It may be a pipe dream, but with the stature of the Academy and the history of a former Chief of Staff singing in the choir, well, stranger things have happened.”

Serving through song

Rabbi Rappeport moved from Australia to Israel for his rabbinical training and came to New York to serve as a Rabbi. It was then, he says, that he felt a “call within a call—the Rabbinate is a calling and serving in the military is a calling.”

“I met people who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan both as chaplains and as service members,” he says. “I found their stories so compelling and moving that I knew I needed to become a part of that.”

Now, he runs the Jewish program at the Air Force Academy and is Chaplain for Cadet Group Two, responsible for providing support, confidential counseling, and leadership advisement for 1,200 cadets. He is, he says, “definitely busy,” but he has found time to support the cadets who wanted to restart the choir.

“Being Jewish is something I appreciate,” he says. “Having this new venture has given me another avenue to share that with these Jewish cadets, enhancing our relationship and engagement with each other.”

“Rabbi is wonderful, amazing,” Sharkey says. “I met him the second day of basic training. He was so welcoming and kind, and he loves to give us opportunities to do outreach.” Abramoff says that “my faith is an important part of why I came to the Air Force Academy.” During World War II, his grandparents were children hidden from the Nazis in rural areas of the Netherlands until their country was liberated by Allied Forces.

“If not for the Allies, who knows if they would have made it,” Abramoff says. “There was a debt to be paid.”

His grandfather paid that debt by emigrating to the United States when he was 18 and enlisting. He served in the U.S. Army, 101st Airborne Division, during the Korean War. Boaz Abramoff’s understanding of the importance of history and his commitment to serve has carried over to his short time at the Academy. “The choir had an important history,” he says. “It was once a big thing. There was good reason to restart it.”