Meet this month’s NCSY alumni spotlight, Ilan Swartz-Brownstein. If the name sounds familiar it’s because his name has been buzzing around Jewish communities in the U.S. for the past month. This recent America’s Got Talent star walked on-stage as a proud Jew with a kipa and tzitzis along with his co beat-boxer, Josh Leviton. Ilan, born in Alaska, and raised in Portland Oregon, does his best to stay true to himself, and encourages others to do the same.
Although raised very Jewish, Ilan’s religious journey began in high school with his involvement Portland NCSY. It was a period of his life when he would think a lot about what his purpose was and the direction of his life. “I knew I was on the earth for a specific reason, and at certain point I realized that the classic ‘public high school lifestyle’ could not have been that reason. I knew I wasn’t reaching my full potential.”
It was then when Ilan started to go on more Shabbatons, wear a kipa and tzitzit to school, and eventually keep the laws of Shabbat and Kashrut. “Although it wasn’t easy to make such a huge transition in my life, practicing Judaism in a traditional way filled my life with meaning, purpose and depth, in a way I had never experience before”. Shabbatons were an especially important part of his Jewish growth “I lived off the inspiration and spiritual high of those Shabbatons.”
It was at this same time when Ilan started beatboxing. When Ilan and his twin sister Lieba both started to keep Shabbos, they would walk twice a month from their house to the orthodox shul, which was 9 miles away. During these walks, Ilan started to beatbox. And he never stopped.
After high school, Ilan continued his religious journey by spending a year and a half at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem.
In Ilan’s second year in Israel, he was praying at the Western Wall and he recognized a Jewish beatboxer he watched on YouTube, who called himself “The Orthobox”. Ilan immediately approached him and they quickly bonded over their mutual passion for beatboxing. They spent that Saturday night performing together on the streets of Jerusalem.
After a couple years of emailing back and forth, Ilan found out Josh was moving to Washington Heights, the area of New York City where Ilan attends Yeshiva University. Ilan contacted Josh and asked if he was interested in combining their beatboxing abilities, and trying out for America’s Got Talent with him. Josh’s answer: “Wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else.”
With their goal of getting to the televised celebrity auditions, Ilan and Josh sent in an audition video of them doing a beatbox remix to “hava nagilah”, along with 50,000 other Americans who auditioned around the country. Several months later, they were one 300 acts chosen to be flown to LA for the first round auditions in front of the judges. After a successful first round, they were chosen again along with only 80 other acts to be flown back out to LA for the second round of audition, during Pesach. During the second round, Ilan and Josh spent 4 days straight going in and out of video shoots and in-depth interviews about being Jewish. “They filmed us walking around LA, learning Torah, davening, and even did close-ups on our tzitzis!”
Unfortunately though, these four days-worth of footage was not aired on the show for the second round. At first Ilan was disappointed and questioned whether going back even worth it, but he soon realized that the kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, that he and Josh made in the 2nd round was tremendous, even if it wasn’t aired on TV. “When I started to think about it, there we were so many incredible stories of people who we interacted with over those four days. That itself had a huge effect.
Because of their friendly and approachable nature, contestants, producers and even the video crew would talk to Ilan and Josh about being Jewish.Ilan being a Portland NCSY advisor, knew how to react and answer peculiar questions and interesting interactions with the people on the set of AGT. People who didn’t look Jewish at all would tell Ilan and Josh about their Pesach seder or the time they went to the kotel. “Some people would just ask us about the strings hanging from our pants, why we were reading books with small foreign letters, or why we didn’t eat the food everyone else was eating,” remembers Ilan.
One of the most powerful moments from Ilan’s time on the AGT set was when a Jewish comedian approached Ilan and Josh after they had come back from davening Mincha. He came up to them and said “It’s inspiring that you guys go daven every day. Because for most of us here, whether we win or lose, this competition is just up to us. For you though, you know there is higher power that it’s ultimately up to.”
Looking back on this moment and many others like it, Ilan realizes that the true impact of the 2nd round was not what aired on TV. “Going into the 2nd round, I thought they were going to show all this footage of us learning, and talking about our Jewish journeys, but they didn’t show any of it! Now I realize though, that the true impact was not televised, explains Ilan. “I learned from this that a real Kiddush Hashem does have to be biggest, most incredible thing aired on TV in front of 13 million people. Rather, we can make an incredible impact behind the scenes and off camera, with the interactions we have, the impressions we make and the way we act. You never know who you’re going to touch”.
Among the many messages that Ilan and josh want viewers to take away from their performance, Ilan hopes that people will be moved to pursue their own gifts. “This experience has made me want to encourage others to use their own strengths and talents that Hashem has given them to bring light into the world, and make it a brighter, happier place.” And Ilan has done just that. Since Ilan’s America’s Got Talent performances, he has been visiting camps like Camp Sports and Camp Simcha, performing and sharing his story. While at the camps, he encourages campers to always be themselves, and to embrace their Jewish identity, even when it’s difficult to do so. “Hashem created us all as individuals, with individual abilities, strengths and weaknesses. He wants us to be truly ourselves, and use our individual abilities to fulfill our special and holy purpose for being in this world.