Art of the chazzan revived by Teaneck synagogue
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Art of the chazzan revived by Teaneck synagogue

Cantor, choir will bring harmony to Shabbat services

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Cantor Netanel Hershtik performs a Puccini aria at the Tel Aviv Opera House in January. He will sing at a Shabbat Chazzanut in Teaneck on Shabbat. courtesy Netanel Hershtik

One of the youngest stars in the small universe of cantorial music, or chazzanut, wants to change how people relate to synagogue music and prayer. And he wants to demonstrate it this Shabbat at the Young Israel of Teaneck with the Hampton Synagogue Choir at a Shabbat Chazzanut.

This may be the first-ever of this kind in the township and in Bergen County.

Netanel Hershtik, a member of YIOT and a township resident since the fall of 2009, is the cantor of the Hampton Synagogue Choir in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., where he spends most of his summer weekends.

Six members of the choir are coming and will be hosted at congregants’ homes. The choir is directed by Uzbekiztan-born Itzchak Haimov, in whose all-male, Israel-based choir Hershtik sang. Haimov founded the Hampton Synagogue Choir seven years ago at the invitation of Rabbi Marc Schneier, the synagogue’s founder and spiritual leader, whom Hershtik credits for his rapidly growing career.

The son of Naftali Hershtik, chief cantor of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue from 1981 to 2009, Hershtik and his wife, Tamira, settled in the United States in 2005, the same year he was hired as cantor of the Hampton Synagogue Choir.

Hershtik said that what he and the choir are trying to do at YIOT this Shabbat is “to move people [during prayer], not perform or show off. We will try to show how music can elevate prayer and what it can do for a service.”

He said he is very excited about the event “because Teaneck needs it.” He thanked Mark Zomick, YIOT’s president, for taking the initiative and praised the synagogue¹s rabbi, Pinchas Weinberger, for his support. “I am sure that what Mark is doing, spending money on a choir, has raised a few eyebrows,” he said.

The event is being sponsored by several congregants.

“Since Netanel moved into the community we have never asked him to daven [for the congregation],” said Zomick. “He spends few Shabbats in the shul and I didn’t want to ask him to perform, but when he offered, we jumped at the opportunity.”

His role as a cantor, Hershtik said, is to inspire congregants and “to be the center of davening [prayer] because when the devening of everyone is focused in one place, it is elevated upwards to Shamayim [Heaven].”

Hershtik is critical of religious services in most synagogues today, both locally and worldwide, calling them “dry.” Synagogues, he feels, should strive to beautify services because “it’s a tradition that requires an investment of time, thought, and money, and people must understand that they need not only rabbinical leadership but musical leadership too.”

He added, “In every community there are a few good baalei tefilot [the people who lead the services], and the congregations should embrace them, have them lead the services as frequently as possible, and they [the leaders] should also know that they have a responsibility.”

Although a synagogue doesn’t have to have a choir, Hershtik considers it important, because a choir “is the colors that accompany the chazzan.”

He added, “I am not saying there has to be a chazzan with an operatic voice; [rather], we must add every artistic element to Jewish life to make it more beautiful.”

Hershtik believes there is both a decline and a revival of cantorial music. The decline, he said, can be seen in the lack of interest of synagogues in incorporating a regular cantor or a baal tefila in the service. The revival, on the other hand, is evident in the increasing amount of concerts of cantorial music in concert halls around the world, which frequently feature a star-studded lineup of cantors such as Dudu Fisher, Pinchas Cohen, Benzion Miller, Moshe Shulhoff, and Yitzhak Meir Helfgot, known as the “Jewish Pavarotti.”

On kosher cruises like Kosherica, world-renowned cantors share the spotlight with scholars-in-residence and rabbis.

Charlie Bernhaut, co-creator of Cantors World, a site devoted to cantorial music and host of a two-hour Internet program that features one hour of cantorial music every Monday night, said in an e-mail that “Netanel Hershtik is one of the finest young cantors on the chazzanut scene today and the Hampton Synagogue Choir is excellent and unique [and] works wonderfully together with Cantor Hershtik.”

Asked if Shabbat Chazzanut is gaining in popularity, he said he wasn’t sure but, rather, the issue is that most synagogues have financial difficulties and don’t want to spend money on a chazzan.

Also, he said, a synagogue may be dominated by members who either have no appreciation for chazzanut or “don’t have the patience to be inspired by the wonderful, soul music of a chazzan (and choir, if accompanying).”

Many people, he added, just want “to do a perfunctory, quick, uninspiring davening and run to a kiddush or quickly run home, and thus forgo the inspirational experience of being uplifted by true soul music.”

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