Born and raised in New Jersey, Alan Sweifach – co-managing director of community planning for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (JFNNJ) – had four grandparents born in this country. It is the music of European Jews, however, that fired his imagination.
The Teaneck resident has been playing klezmer music since age 14. Clarinetist for the Hester Street Troupe – which includes his brother, Jay, on keyboard, and drummer Jim Bazewicz – Sweifach said the music brings back memories for older adults and “allows them to see their traditions and music still being carried on.”
Sweifach and his brother began playing music together at the urging of their grandfather. “We played by ear,” he said. “I was seven and my brother was nine. My grandfather said we should play something together, so we played duets on piano.”
|Alan Sweifach has been playing klezmer music since age 14. “Music,” he says, “lets me make people happy on a large scale.”|
Later, he took up the clarinet and his grandfather again asked that he play something with his brother. “Someone from our shul heard us, then people kept asking us to play. We added the drummer when I was 15.”
Sweifach, whose wife, Debra Turitz, is director of the senior adult department at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, has an 11-year-old son, Raphael, who attends the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford.
He and his brother have lived “parallel” lives, he said, both graduating from Montclair State and attending graduate school in New York City. Both also work in the Jewish community.
The JFNNJ executive said he got his “first real job” in 1988, after graduating from Columbia University with a major in counseling psychology. “I thought the be-all and end-all was to be a clinical psychologist,” he said. “I wanted a job in college counseling doing academic advisement.”
While doing fieldwork at William Paterson University, “Someone I knew from the band sent me to interview for a job at Jewish Vocational Service in Metrowest. As I was sitting there reading the agency brochure, I realized this was Maimonides’ highest degree of charity, like teaching someone to fish. I said this is where I wanted to be, working for a Jewish agency.”
Sweifach ultimately got that position, working on Russian resettlement.
“I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before,” he said. “My brother and mother work for JCCs, and I was raised with a strong traditional Jewish background. I got into it by chance and have been working in the field for more than 20 years.”
These days, in addition to his work with the federation, Sweifach and his troupe do concerts three to four times a month. Coming up soon, he said, is a Dec. 17 performance at Teaneck’s Puffin Cultural Forum.
“It’s my first local job in a long time,” he said, noting that these concerts of Jewish music are now becoming “second generation” events. “My son and my brother’s three kids are starting to sing Yiddish songs,” he said.
For Sweifach, music is “more than just a hobby. It put us through college and grad school,” he said, explaining that he and his brother often played more than 15 times a month while in school. “We’ve got three record albums out,” he said.
He noted that performing is like a second job, adding that someone once told him that “sweifach,” as it happens, translates as “two jobs.”
“Music lets me make people happy on a large scale – make them smile, laugh, and tap their feet,” he said. “I also get to spend time with my brother and my nieces and nephews.”
Sweifach said that whether in his work life or his band life, “It’s all Jewish. It all has a Jewish component.” In addition, he said, performing at a young age gave him the skills and confidence that have helped him in his professional life.
Over the years, he said, he has seen changes in the Jewish community, “as we Jews have to work harder to get people involved. That’s involvement for the positive [things] that it brings to one’s life, as opposed to people getting involved because they’re excluded from other areas.”
“Jews have unprecedented access to places they were excluded from before, both in business and socially. It’s a whole new world,” he said. “We have to show what individuals can get out of being involved Jewishly – how it enriches their lives.”
“I love every aspect of what I do,” he said.