Growing up in the Orthodox Jewish community of Richmond, Ari Lewis never thought he would be part of the world-renowned a cappella group the Maccabeats.
"It's been a great ride," said Lewis, 25. "I mean, I'm signing autographs. I never thought in my life that I'd be asked to sign someone else's sneakers."
The Maccabeats, of which Lewis has been a member since 2008, were originally a group of full-time students at New York's Yeshiva University who sang together as an extracurricular activity. Jews in the New York metropolitan area would hire them for bar mitzvahs, weddings and other Jewish functions.
In December 2010, the group found itself in a new kind of spotlight, when its online video "Candlelight" (a Hanukkah song parodying the Taio Cruz hit "Dynamite") accumulated more than 2 million views in 10 days. Soon afterward, the group was flooded with booking requests and was getting media attention across the country.
Since then, the group has appeared on television and has performed at the White House as well as the Israeli Knesset (parliament).
"I think that the Maccabeats have shown millions of people who otherwise wouldn't know that observant Jews, like all Jews, contribute to all aspects of society, including the music scene," said Rabbi Dovid Asher of Lewis' congregation Keneseth Beth Israel.
Lewis and his three siblings grew up in a tight-knit enclave of some 50 Sabbath-observant families that are clustered around Keneseth Beth Israel, because restrictions on the Sabbath and holidays forbid Orthodox Jews from driving to synagogue.
"It's like a family. We quite often would visit each other's houses on Shabbat and holidays; we would eat in each other's houses and invite each other over for meals under the sukkah," said Ari's mother, Orly Lewis. "I would say that it's a small, supporting community."
Lewis also credits living in the community with helping him develop his singing voice. He said he learned to sing through living an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle where meals, holidays and prayer services are all punctuated with song.
Lewis also attended the community's traditional Jewish high school, known as a yeshiva, where he studied for 11-hour days. Living an Orthodox lifestyle entailed restrictions on diet and electrical use on Sabbath in addition to a number of other rabbinically ordained laws.
The idea of combining Torah study with secular pursuits, known as Torah Umadda, is one of the main tenets of Yeshiva University and it's what drives the Maccabeats as well.
Lewis says that the Maccabeats aim to embody the ideal of "living a life of Torah and Judaism, and simultaneously a successful secular life."
This also is evident in the Maccabeats' song selection, which includes a mix of traditional Jewish songs and pop hits, such as Daniel Powter's "Bad Day," K'naan's "Waving Flag" and Coldplay's "Viva la Vida." According to Lewis, the group is very careful that the lyrics of the radio hits they sing are consistent with their values.
The group has crossed over and attracted non-Jewish audiences as well. The group has even toured in places, such as New Zealand and China, where audiences were largely unfamiliar with Judaism.
"In Judaism, they say we're a light to the nations of the world," said Lewis. "When we can impact anyone in this world, whether non-Jewish, Jewish or secular ... we take pride in that."
This is the first year in which all the members of the Maccabeats are alumni of Yeshiva University rather than current students. With the exception of one person, everyone studied something other than music, and they all either work or attend graduate school full time. The group still meets on nights and weekends.
Lewis graduated in 2011 with a degree in business management and works for a media company in New York.