At Sinai Akiba Academy recently, Bryna Vener vigorously conducted close to 100 first- through-eighth-graders in a passionate rendition of "Hava Nagila" as students danced in their seats. If the atmosphere was celebratory, it was because the assembly was a dress rehearsal for the orchestra's 25th anniversary concert and alumni reunion June 10, when graduates will return to fete Vener and her remarkable group.
"What Bryna is doing is so important because she's built perhaps the oldest and largest orchestra of that age level of Jewish children, anywhere," said Russell Steinberg, director of the Stephen Wise Music Academy.
"When she began, Proposition 13 had created a big void in music education in the public schools, which is only now starting to come back," said Sinai music teacher Adam Lerman. "So it was unique for these children to have an orchestra to go to."
The charismatic Vener, a conservatory-educated violinist, founded the orchestra when she herself became a casualty of Proposition 13 after teaching public school music for more than a decade.
When she enrolled her daughter, Dvora, at Sinai in 1979, she approached Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin with an idea: "I said, 'If you let me do this on a volunteer basis, I promise you a Chanukah concert in two months," she recalled. "After the concert, there wasn't a dry eye in the house, and the rabbi said, 'Good. Now you can play for Purim?'"
Since then, the group has grown from 18 to almost 100 students -- including a more accomplished group of chamber players -- all of whom study privately as a condition of joining the program. At several yearly concerts, they play Jewish and Israeli music and "easy classics," such as Rossini's "William Tell Overture"; they've also performed for the Israeli president, at Disneyland and for the opening of downtown's Central Library.
At the recent assembly, 20-year-old alumnus Jeremy Stern, who just finished his Israeli army service, said he thought of the orchestra when he performed " with his yeshiva band.
While other students have gone on to become professional musicians, "that's not why we teach music," Vener said. "We do it so students will become more sensitive, so they will learn to recognize beauty and develop a team spirit."
The 59-year-old Vener herself radiates that spirit: "This orchestra has been her passion for 25 years," said teaching assistant Sheri Caine-Marks, whose children are orchestra alumni. "She just exudes that energy."
For information about the 7 p.m. concert at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. 8th St., Los Angeles, call (323) 525-0146.