In June, New York will see a $500,000 citywide, four-day celebration commemorating the 50th anniversaries of the Cantors Assembly and the state of Israel, including what is billed as the world's largest live outdoor event in the organization's honor.
And it took three cantors from Los Angeles to put it together.
"I don't think at first anybody believed it," said Nate Lam, a cantor at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel-Air and chairman of the event. "We encountered a 'been there, done that' attitude from the New York establishment. They became Missourians and said, 'Show me.' And we proceeded to show them--with typical L.A. showmanship. It's Hollywood in New York."
The celebration, to run June 7-10, will feature concerts at Carnegie Hall, Ellis Island and Central Park--the park event co-sponsored by the Israeli Consulate and expected to draw 50,000 people. Other activities include services and lectures at major synagogues around the city, a pyrotechnics display and the annual convention of the Cantors Assembly--an association of 450 cantors from around the world affiliated with the Conservative Jewish movement.
Special guests so far include famed cantor Naftali Hershtig from the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, popular Israeli singers Yafa Yarkoni and Yehoram Gaon, and American celebrities such as actresses Tyne Daly and Sally Kellerman, and folk singer Pete Seeger.
"The mere fact that they came to us with this initiative, and that we will be involved, is the best proof of the links between American Jewry and the people of Israel," said Rafi Gamzou, the consul for cultural affairs of Israel in the United States. "It proves how much we appreciate all denominations of Jews."
To date $175,000 has been raised--mostly from private donations--for the event. Overflow funds will go toward scholarships for future cantors and educating the public about the role of cantors.
"We want to create a greater public awareness of what we do," Lam said. "We want them to see us as clergy who service congregations as teachers, counselors, life-cycle facilitators, and doing many things besides getting up and singing."
But there is a more sobering message: At a time of conflict between Jews and Arabs, as well as among Judaism's Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements, the three cantors hope the celebrations will promote Jewish unity.
"It's a tragedy for us to be fighting among ourselves in the manner that we do," said Joseph Gole, a cantor at Congregation Mogen David in Los Angeles, and co-chairman of the event. "It's one thing to have an opinion and discuss, but we have to respect each other."
He added: "We didn't start out with this being the theme, but it's very critical that we, as cantors, have the ability to sing to God together with one voice."
The idea for such a celebration came from Lam about two years ago. Since his days in the early 1990s as president of the Cantors Assembly, he had organized cantorial concerts in several U.S. cities.
He enlisted Gole, a close friend from childhood, and Chayim Frenkel, the cantor at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, who surprised everyone by nailing down Central Park for a concert. New York was chosen as the natural backdrop because of its cantorial roots. The city houses some of the country's oldest synagogues and three of the world's four cantor schools, Lam said.
Cantors have been in the United States since the 17th century, but their numbers here rose with the influx of German, Russian and Polish Jews in the latter 19th century. By the early 20th, the Jewish community regarded leading cantors as the rock stars of their day. To perpetuate the cantorate, the Cantors Assembly formed in New York in 1947.
"For the present, we hope this celebration will not only uplift, but be a milestone for an organization that sometimes climbs uphill" in educating the public about the role of the cantor, Frenkel said. "The cantor is the partner of the rabbi in uplifting and augmenting the spiritual soul of the Jew. . . . But sometimes people wonder if the cantor is 'just a singer.'
"For the future," he added, "we want people to realize that Jewish music has made a great transformation in the last 50 years, and will continue to transform and inspire."
* Day 1 (June 7)--Free concert open to the public in Central Park's East Meadow with top Israeli singing talent and 1,800 children from New York area synagogues.
* Day 2 (June 8)--Daytime program and service at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Evening concert at Carnegie Hall featuring cantors from the U.S. and Canada.
* Day 3 (June 9)--Daytime immigration-oriented concerts and exhibits at Ellis Island and the New Jewish Heritage Museum in the Battery Park area. Evening concert at Congregation Emmanu-El of the City of New York, "the largest house of Jewish worship in the world," said Lam, "other than the Second Avenue Deli."
* Day 4 (June 10)--Daytime concert at the Marriott World Trade Center in Manhattan's financial district featuring the Johannesberg Male Choir and the Choir of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem.