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Boys belt Jewish tunes to sway all generations

By Yoav Gonen

The boys, ages 6 to 11, are (back row, l.-r.) Rabbi Avrohom Okonov, Boris Rukiter, Isaak Liberman and Rabbi Okonov Sr., who support the group because it shows Judaism is “alive, fun and interesting.”

A group of tuxedo-clad Russian boys belting out Jewish show tunes might sound a bit unorthodox. But for the Hebrew Alliance-Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, a Jewish Orthodox synagogue in Brighton, the choral group seemed like a natural project.

“It shows people Judaism is alive, it’s fun and it’s interesting,” said Rabbi Avrohom Okonov, 26.

The M-Generation, as the choral group is known, was formed in 2002 by Boris Rukiter, 55, a Russian-born musician. The idea was to teach the largely nonreligious Russian community, especially the children, about their Jewish roots.

“We try to build a bridge to what Judaism is all about,” said Rukiter.

In creating a repertoire for the seven boys, Rukiter originally searched for Russian Jewish songs with a modern vitality to them. He immediately ran into an obstacle.

“I couldn’t find one,” Rukiter said.

So he created his own songs by combining original show-tune music with simple sing-along lyrics, and tapped into a sound that young kids could appreciate.

The members of M-Generation, who range in age from 6 to 11, were selected from auditions of hundreds of aspiring young singers in Brooklyn. The boys, some of whom were born in Russia, have been rehearsing two or three times a week over the past year.

“In three months, I accomplished a lot,” said Benyomin Lerner, 10, of Borough Park. “My singing changed.”

The boys were also transformed from a forest of rooted trees into a troupe of nimble performers by Rukiter’s technique of having them sing while kicking a soccer ball around.

Now, when the boys perform, they tap their toes and swing their arms to the beat. When they solo, they move and sing with the fervor of contestants on “American Idol.” And judging by their performance at a major competition – the Golden Hanukiyah International – in Berlin in December, their enthusiasm can be contagious.

“You can’t imagine what kind of effect they have on people,” said Okonov.

In fact, none of them was prepared for their effect on the audience in Berlin. During a performance of “Sabbath,” a song about the traditional celebration of the Holy Saturday, older members of the crowd were moved to tears.

“It was a big surprise for the kids,” said Rukiter. “They asked me, ‘Why are they crying?’ They didn’t understand.”

Crowds in Brighton also are responding to the music, with each performance drawing more and more people to the 77-year-old synagogue.

The M-Generation is currently recording a CD with 15 tracks, sung in a combination of Russian, Yiddish and English. Despite the growing hoopla, however, the boys still appreciate the simple pleasures of performing.

“When people clap for us, that makes us happy,” said 6-year-old Mitchell Sapoff, the youngest member of the group.

The next M-Generation concert is today at 5:30 p.m. at 2915 Brighton 6th Street. It will be a joint performance with the Moscow Synagogue Choir, a celebrated adult choir from Russia. The concert will honor the 102nd birthday of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who passed away 10 years ago after a life dedicated to education and philanthropy.

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