It’s a Saturday night, and the sold-out concert venue is packed with impatient teenage girls screaming for their favorite boy band to hit the stage.
Wearing band T-shirts—some bought, others homemade—holding “We Love You” signs and posting selfies on social media to pass the time, the fans wait.
Parent chaperones for the younger fans are all hunched over in their seats, checking watches and texting away on smartphones.
Suddenly the lights go down and the volume of the shrieks goes up and intensifies as the guys, dressed in their standard black pants, white button-down shirts and black skinny ties, take their places across the stage.
Within moments they are dancing, singing and beatboxing to today’s top music tracks—from Justin Bieber, Taio Cruz and even the Broadway hit “Hamilton.” However, if you listen closely to the lyrics, you’ll hear words like “latkes,” “menorah” and “Shabbat.”
This is no ordinary boy band—it’s the Maccabeats, whose humble origins as a student a cappella group began in the halls of Yeshiva University.
A decade later, their fame has skyrocketed. With over 20 million YouTube views under their yarmulkes, the Maccabeats have now performed in 37 states and 11 countries, putting a Jewish spin on popular music and attracting millions of fans of all ages in the process.
But who are these guys, and how did they go from being an unknown a capella school group to a world-renowned band that took the Internet by storm?
“We are all just a group of normal guys doing what we love! We all have full-time jobs, and most of us are married with kids living normal lives,” says Ari Lewis, an events and marketing manager for a local day school by day, and a Maccabeat by night and weekend.
Elisheva Koplen, their booking manager, says, “The Maccabeats are doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists, rabbis and students. Most of their events are booked on the weekends, and vacation and personal days are often used for other events. Being part of the Maccabeats requires a big commitment and a lot of late nights creating, recording, filming and rehearsing. It can be difficult to balance everything including family time.”
Lewis finds himself on the road for about 30-35 performances a year, and credits an accommodating employer and a very understanding wife for his ability to live the Maccabeat lifestyle.
Nachum Joel, a married father of two in the insurance business who is in his final semester of business school at Yeshiva University, says, “I currently average about four to five shows a month and practice with the guys once a week, then squeeze in recording and filming. It’s crazy, but as life gets busier you make time and you find the energy for the things that are important. Life is crazy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The group also writes their songs. Joel tells New York Jewish Life, “We have a creative committee within the Maccabeats that brainstorms song and video ideas. Then the committee will work on the lyrics as a group. A few times we have even incorporated ideas suggested by fans.”
When the group produced their first album, they asked their fellow classmate, Uri Westrich, if he’d be interested in doing a video for their cover of Matisyahu’s “One Day.” Excited at the prospect, he agreed. “Six months later, after I began as a medical student at Mount Sinai, they asked me if I wanted to team up again to do a Chanukah video. That turned out to be ‘Candlelight,’” says Westrich, referring to the mega-hit video that took them from virtually unknown to viral sensation in a weekend.
According to Joel, “The group had a goal of eventually, over time, reaching 100,000 views for ‘Candlelight.’ It hit a million that weekend and is now at 12.5 million views. That’s when we all looked at each other and kind of said, ‘Is this really happening?’ Then we started seeing our video posted on major news sites and the TV stations started reaching out to us to perform.”
Not bad for a video that took one day to make and cost less than $2,000 to create.
“We recently held an audition this year, the first time in four years,” Joel shares. “None of us want to stop, which makes it harder to add new members. But we did just add a wonderful new member, Joey Senders.”
As for what the audition process looks like to join the ranks of the world’s most famous Jewish a cappella group of nice Jewish boys dedicated to their heritage, their craft and their families, Joel explains, “It is not a special audition process. Prepare some music, sing for the guys and we vote. That’s it.”