Adam Kleinberg.
Adam Kleinberg, winner of the 2011 Hallelujah Competition. Photo by Randy Pressman
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Randy Pressman
Oliver Ghnassia, runner up the 2011 Hallelujah Competition. Photo by Randy Pressman
Randy Pressman
David Kobiashvili from Russia sings "Millim". Photo by Randy Pressman
Randy Pressman
Hallelujah 2011 winner Adam Kleinberg sings 'Lo Kal' by Hayehudim, August 25, 2011. Photo by Randy Pressman
Randy Pressman
Limor Livnat shakes Adam Kleinberg's hand after winning the Hallelujah competition. Photo by Randy Pressman

Mexican singer Adam Kleinberg, a relative of Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, won first prize at the 2011 Hallelujah singing competition Thursday night, as local families, seniors and music enthusiasts gathered in Ramat Hasharon's central square.

Hallelujah, which has been on a 17-year hiatus, returned with a bang as 12 finalists took to the stage with the hope of becoming the next Jewish idol. Thirty contestants from around the world spent three weeks touring, training and competing until the top finalist were selected.

Hallelujah is not just a singing competition. It is a vehicle to foster a connection to Israel and the Hebrew language, with all the participants, aged 16 to 26, singing a Hebrew song of their choice. The winner of the competition will record a duet with an Israeli singer, tour Jewish communities worldwide in order to promote their music and also receive a cash prize of 8,000 dollars.

The evening began with local married celebrity couple Oded Menashe, a former children’s show host, and Eden Harel, a former MTV host, who introduced the competition - and the panel of celebrity judges, hosted by veteran singer Yehoram Gaon.

Gaon made waves earlier this year when he deemed Mediterranean music "rubbish", critiquing its poor Hebrew lyrics and lack of depth.

"Sometimes I listen to the words and I don't believe what I am hearing," a publication of the Ariel University Center's communications department publication quoted Gaon as saying.

“It's rubbish that even the devil didn't create. Dreadful rubbish. There are mistakes in Hebrew; it's an embarrassment to the intelligentsia. I am hoping for the time when this cursed trend is over," he added.

Evidently, the Israeli music legend and Israel Prize laureate is more optimistic about the future of Diaspora Jewish music, and he enthusiastically endorsed the international competition.

The Israel Defense Forces band opened the show with a Hallelujah medley, beginning with the Israeli standard “Hallelujah”, segueing into Leonard Cohen's classic translated into Hebrew and then continuing with an array of Hallelujah-themed songs.

The competition commenced with Oliver Ghnassia, a 20-year-old professional singer and DJ from Brussels, who speaks fluent Hebrew. Ghnassia's grandfather is Israeli and he visits the country regularly to see his family.

The young, talented Ghnassia found out about the competition through the ambassador of Israel to Belgium.

"This is a unique experience," the Belgian singer told Haaretz, adding "there are no words to describe how wonderful it is to meet people who I never would have met otherwise - Jews from all over the world. It's amazing."

His rendition of Shlomi Shabbat and Lior Narkis's "Le'kol Echad Yesh" (Everyone Has) was powerful and moving. Ghnassia, sporting a blue-and-white outfit complete with cobalt blazer (with the sleeves rolled up) and a “Chai” chain, seemed to really be enjoying himself on stage.

The following acts encompassed a variety of Israeli musical style, from the fun rock-and-roll classic "Erev Avud"(Lost Evening, by: Gidi Gov) sung by the dreadlocked-American Dale Rodman who urged the crowd to "just have fun", to Dutch Lorren Rettich's jazzy rendition of "Hine Patachti Chalon" (Here I Opened a Window, by: Riki Gal).

David Kobiashvili, who took the stage looking like John Travolta circa "Pulp Fiction" (seriously) captivated the crowd with his soulful voice, as he sang the Israeli classic "Milim" (Words, by: Harel Skaat) sitting on a barstool. When the Russian contestant reached the refrain, he stood up, arms wide open, belting out that "you have only left me with words" in an impressive closing.

Mexican Adam Kleinberg, whose great-grandmother was David Ben-Gurion's first cousin, brought a touch of rock to the competition with "Lo Kal" (Not Easy, by Hayehudim), which he says has been "an inspirational song" for him.

Wearing a leather jacket and pants and sporting dreadlocks, Kleinberg paced the stage, drawing in the crowd with his rock star voice.

Voters from all over the world submitted the name of their favorite performer online, and the audience was invited to text the contestant they wanted to see winning to a number that appeared on screens located on either side of the stage.

As the votes were being counted and the tension mounted, Ramat Hasharon Mayor Yitzhak Rochberger and Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat addressed the audience.

"The meaning of being Jewish is to sing," Livnat told the Ramat Hasharon crowd. "Singing when you are happy, singing when you are sad - since its inception, the Jewish people have not stopped singing," the minister said.

The contestants who did not make it to the finals came on to sing the Hallelujah competition anthem, as the audience waited in anticipation for the announcement of the winners.

Once the voting results were tallied, the moment of truth arrived. There seemed to be a hiccup in the program due to discrepancies between online and SMS voting, however, this was soon remedied, and a Kochav Nolad-esque voting scandal was successfully averted.

David Kobiashvili took third place, arriving on stage with a huge smile on his face. Oliver Ghnassia came in second, suavely accepting his award. And in first place, Adam Kleinberg, the Mexican rock star.

Kleinberg returned to the stage to perform an encore of his winning-song, and his fellow contestants joined him on stage to celebrate the victory.

"This is an incredible feeling, coming to Israel to participate in such a special competition with such talented people," Kleinberg said after he took his award. "Winning is a feeling I cannot describe."

The Mexican winner told Haaretz that he plans to move to Israel, and throughout the event, participants and organizers alike stressed the importance of both a connection between Diaspora communities and Israel, as well as the hope that many of the contestants will make Aliyah.

Gustavo Guerchom, a 20-year-old from Brazil, who sang "Lo Ozev et Ha'ir" (I'm not Leaving Town by Shlomo Artzi), told Haaretz that growing up he was a member of the Jewish Zionist youth group Habonim Dror, and said he too is strongly considering making Aliyah.

Speaking with Haaretz as the event came to a close, Livnat expressed her hope that the connection the participants had fostered with Israel throughout the competition would resonate, motivating them to move to Israel.

"It is very exciting to see so many young Jews connected to Israel," the culture minister said, adding "I am hoping they will return to make Aliyah."