Shim Craimer, 40, whose dulcet tones, fresh face and high energy have secured his place as a sought-after Jewish musical performer nationwide, has sung at hundreds of weddings in the New York area and his native London over the past two decades. But that’s just one of Craimer’s jobs.
Though he has utilized his highly trained tenor voice with easy access to his full vocal range, along with his trademark vocal control, to collaborate with many fellow Jewish performers, and composed and produced multiple studio recordings, including an “Israel at 60” collaboration with close friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks that garnered 3 million hits on YouTube, and several music videos, he is not just a composer or producer.
Though many of his personal compositions are delivered in a bright-sounding pop style, he is trained in cantorial music as well, and has worked for 15 years as the chazzan of the Riverdale Jewish Center, one of only a handful of Orthodox synagogues left in the United States that employ a full-time chazzan, he’s not just a member of his shul’s clergy.
Though he’s worked as music director at SAR Academy and a music and media instructor at Torah Academy of Bergen County, he’s not just a music and choir teacher.
In fact, he’s all these things, and more. And get ready Israel, he’s coming to you. His newest song, “Tziyon,” which was originally produced as a closing-credits song for an as-yet-unreleased Israeli movie, will in fact be set to a music video of his family’s aliyah, produced in partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh. His family’s aliyah this summer will be on a charter flight with 232 other North American olim.
The Craimer family moved to Riverdale, in the Bronx borough of New York City, in 2003. Trained at a music school in London and a member of the Ner Yisroel synagogue in Hendon, he was chazzan at the Edgware United Synagogue, one of the biggest congregations in the U.K., before relocating to the Riverdale Jewish Center after one of its members heard him sing at a friend’s wedding in the U.S. and brought him to Riverdale for a Shabbat. He was offered the job the night he arrived. He and his wife, Ruthie, had just one child, Uri, at the time. After 15 years, their family now includes twins Ben and Eli, and daughter Mia.
Being part of a community that welcomed the young British couple who were “coming for a year, maximum,” while they waited to see if Craimer’s musical career would take off, he said the years were good to them. The shul relationship, in particular, has been amazing. “It never felt like a job to work at the Riverdale Jewish Center. Fifteen years later we are still here,” he said.
Ruthie became a beloved early childhood teacher at SAR Academy, and her husband’s career as a musician employed day and night reached heights they never imagined, resulting in Craimer’s freelance collaboration with many of New York’s busiest Jewish wedding and simcha bands—including Neshoma Orchestra, Kol Play, the Ike Walkover band and Aaron Teitelbaum Orchestra—as well as many fellow chazzanim and commercially successful Jewish singers. In the past few years, he even saw success in his own compositions and musical productions and was able to invite his twin sons to sing on his albums. He just released a video, “Tzaddik Katamar,” from his latest album, “Forever More/Me’atah V’ad Olam,” which feature Ben and Eli. Every song on this album is of his own composition.
In fact, the opportunities were so varied and so good that it became increasingly difficult to consider going home to London, even as virtually all of Ruthie’s family has made aliyah in the years since. “In the time that we’ve been in Riverdale, we have always had in the back of our minds...Israel,” he said.
Planning for Aliyah
The Craimers decided to make aliyah when they were visiting Israel last year for their twins’ bar mitzvahs. Taking in its beauty, they realized they had so much family and friends living there and decided right then they didn’t want to have anywhere else as a base, and didn’t want to live apart from close family longer than they already had. Craimer’s song “Tziyon” was composed on that trip, and Craimer remembered the moments he wrote it and the thoughts it crystallized. “It’s about how amazing Israel is in my eyes. Nefesh B’Nefesh is sharing it as a video diary of our aliyah,” he said.
They plan to move to Modi’in, in central Israel, where Ruthie will open an early childhood center (gan). But Craimer’s roots have grown so strong in New York that they’re not pulling up entirely. “I’ve worked out with the Riverdale Jewish Center to come back once a month to daven for Shabbat and for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and for one additional Yom Tov a year,” with the flexibility to schedule his smachot, musical or chazzanut gigs in the U.S. around the times he comes to New York.
Another benefit of aliyah for Craimer is he will have access to other types of opportunities in Israel, both in terms of vocal performance and teaching. He is already booked at cantorial concerts, which is a market he did not delve into much in the States, and at weddings he is already sought after for what he calls the “Chutznik” market. Chutzniks are English-speaking Israelis or those visiting Israel to make a wedding or bar mitzvah, who seek an American-style event. A band he has worked with often, Kol Play, is now setting up an Israeli office and will be booking gigs for him in the U.S., London and Israel.
Conducting a New Children’s Chorus
Perhaps the most exciting new aspect of Craimer’s developing career is in conducting and mentoring. He is involved in the early stages of a new program called Shir Ha’Am, a non-profit chorus following the idea of the Young People’s Chorus, a program based near Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, which was established by Conductor Francisco Núñez for disadvantaged children. Craimer said he was approached by a Chicago-based philanthropist who wants to set up a similar program in Israel. Craimer was taken with the idea, and is impressed by how well the Young People’s Chorus has done. “It started with seven at-risk kids in the basement of a church. Now it has 450 kids who come there two to three times a week. It’s now the hardest choir to be a part of in the United States,” said Craimer.
The concept of the Israeli chorus will be to welcome children aged 10 to 19 who are into music and perhaps off the derech or identified in some way as at risk, who can potentially benefit from a safe haven, musical instruction and companionship or mentorship opportunities. The plan is to create three different performance groups, “one for boys, one for girls and one mixed boys and girls, so we are open to everyone. When they perform they will go to hospitals and rehab centers, and hopefully become self-sustaining and also have some government funding,” Craimer said.
Is this Craimer’s biggest aspiration, to create such a choir to improve lives of at-risk youth in Israel? “I am at a different stage now, developing goals. I am still very busy with davening, performing and smachot but you have to keep evolving. There is a lot more competition in terms of being able to put out as much as you can in terms of your compositions; you need to be more versatile.”
“When I reach my 70s, I want to, of course, have had a successful musical career, but also I want to have this opportunity to start something, to begin something like this. The idea has been born, so it would be amazing to see it happen,” he said.
Hear Craimer’s newest releases free on Spotify, buy them on iTunes, and look out for his Nefesh B’Nefesh video, coming out this summer after the Craimer family’s aliyah.
By Elizabeth Kratz