Documentary pays homage to resilience of Montreal’s special-needs choir members through pandemic

An image from the film, "Just As I Am, the Shira Choir."

Weekly rehearsals and a busy concert schedule provided a group of Montreal adults with disabilities much-needed camaraderie and opportunity to learn and develop their talents.

The pandemic brought that to a sudden halt in March 2020.  But under its charismatic founder and leader, Cantor Daniel Benlolo, the Shira Choir went virtual. The 35 members quickly adapted to meeting on Zoom each week, singing together for what dragged into months, easing the isolation of confinement to their homes.

The members, ranging in age from early 20s to 60s and living with intellectual and developmental challenges, are followed through the pandemic in the new documentary Just As I Am: The Shira Choir, produced and directed by Evan Beloff.

One would have to have a heart of stone to watch this hour-long film without getting teary, yet it is not maudlin. Its stars are resilient in the face of loss of real-life social connection and purpose, in addition to the confusion and fear surrounding a deadly virus.

They adapt quickly to meeting weekly online, singing just as passionately as ever. The exuberance of the unfailingly upbeat Benlolo (Danny to all) is infectious and keeps the choir members feeling positive. Birthdays are celebrated and hugs and kisses sent virtually until they can emerge from their homes.

Benlolo founded the Shira Choir soon after he returned to Montreal in 2017 following more than two decades in Ottawa where he created the acclaimed Tamir Neshama Choir. Benlolo saw that there was little structured social and recreational activity for disabled people after they aged out of the system at around 21.

He also wanted to dispel the stereotypes and discomfort surrounding disability that leads to marginalization and exclusion. He believes music and singing have the power to unite people.

Based at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue where Benlolo is cantor, the Shira Choir is open to those of all backgrounds, and the documentary shows that diversity.

Whatever their identity, all members learn an eclectic repertoire ranging from Jewish liturgical songs to Broadway and pop hits, and perform in hospitals, nursing homes, and places of worship.

Says Adena Schnarch, “I joined the choir because I love singing and learning new songs, and I like performing in front of people. The choir members and volunteers have become part of my family.” She persuaded her less outgoing husband, Robert Lemieux, to join too.

Just As I Am is the title of the song created especially for the choir by the film’s executive producer, Marvin Rosenblatt. Its lyrics ask that we really see and hear the disabled and recognize our common humanity.

As COVID restrictions eased, Shira members reunited to professionally record the song — to their obvious delight. The film concludes with the choir finally coming together this June for an outdoor concert.

Just As I Am is more than an inspirational, feel-good film. It addresses difficult issues, not the least, death. Worried parents wonder what will happen to their children after they are gone.

The pandemic has been a sort of rehearsal. Some Shira members could not see their parents for months – their first such separation.

Mortality has to be confronted frankly. This is poignantly illustrated in the case of the Yanofsky family. Jonah, an inquisitive, lively 22-year-old on the autism spectrum, asks his mother Cynthia if she is going to die someday.

It is his father Joel who receives a cancer diagnosis during the pandemic and passes away last December. As he nears the end, Joel expresses how he has come to appreciate community and his gratitude to the Shira Choir for providing that.

Jonah processes his feelings by singing his own songs, even at his father’s graveside.

This was not the only unexpected death during the filmmaking. Rosenblatt’s wife of 37 years, Maxine, died suddenly in October and the film is dedicated to her memory. In the past, she had taught independent living skills to young adults.

“While I was broken at our family’s loss, I continued to push forward knowing that she would want me to. I was so driven that I took it upon myself to write the lyrics for our theme song together with my musician nephew in Israel,” he said.

“It has been my greatest joy among all the sadness to watch the choir members learn and embrace the simple yet meaningful song.”

Just As I Am: The Shira Choir had its world premiere in-person at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on Sept. 23 with the choir performing. The documentary airs on CBC on Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. and will then be available on CBC Gem, the broadcaster’s free streaming service.