New cantor wants others to sing along
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New cantor wants others to sing along

'Upbeat' chazzan says music has tremendous power

Cantor Anna Zhar – who joined the staff of New City’s Temple Beth Sholom this summer – knows that she is a lucky woman.

While the chazzan spent much of her youth pursuing her strong interest in choral music, she was later able to combine that passion with a growing love for Judaism.

“I put together both worlds – the world of music and my Judaism,” said Zhar, who grew up in the former Soviet Union.

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Cantor Anna Zhar

Her formal credentials echo that diversity.

Not only did she receive a degree in choral conducting and music education from the Tchaikovsky Music Academy in Moscow – and, after immigrating to Israel, a degree from the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, where she graduated with honors – but she also earned ordination from Hebrew Union College.  

Zhar became exposed to the Reform movement while in Israel and “dreamed of becoming a cantor. I never knew about the Reform Movement, and the first time I went to a Reform synagogue in Israel I was shocked to see men and women praying together and to see choirs and instruments during the service. It was a revelation,” she said. “It opened up the whole world to me.”

Moving to the United States, she earned a master’s degree in choral conducting from San Francisco State University.

But even there, “I went to a Reform shul and was asked to work with the choir,” she recalled.

Ultimately enrolling in Hebrew Union College, she was ordained in 2007, later spending two years at Temple B’nai Israel in Southbury, Conn., and six years at Newburgh’s Temple Beth Jacob.

Since becoming a cantor, Zhar has organized various community concerts as well as joint performances of synagogues, colleges, and universities.

Choirs, she said, “have always been a big part of my life. I love doing that.”

She worked with many choirs in Israel, among them the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir, the Jerusalem Chamber Choir, and the Jerusalem “Cantus” and “Oratorio” Choirs.

In addition to working with both the adult and children’s choirs at Beth Sholom, she hopes to reach the wider community, creating concerts and joint services with other churches and synagogues. She suggested that Thanksgiving would provide a good opportunity for that kind of event, as would Martin Luther King Day.

“I’m really looking forward to that,” she said.

“Communities here are very different than in Israel,” she said, calling those in the United States “more vivid and colorful. You have different kinds of people around you, people from all over the world. It’s more vibrant.”

The cantor said that “music has a tremendous power and is extremely important, especially to Judaism. It’s a huge part of our tradition. There are tunes from all over the world. Some people pray only through the music,” she added. “You can speak without words and reach the deepest human spirit.”

Zhar said that her first goal at Beth Sholom will be “learning all the people’s names and digging out new talent in the congregation.”

“I believe it is a talented congregation; there’s so much potential,” she said. “I don’t like being alone on the bimah. I love the choir and finding people and incorporating their talents into the prayers and temple life – musically and beyond.”

Zhar said she is looking forward to becoming an organic part of the congregation and “keeping people involved.”

Nancy Goldberg – chair of the cantorial search committee as well as a member of the temple choir and a former president of the congregation – said that the committee had been looking for someone who would truly engage with the congregation and relate well to the children.

“She really does both those jobs,” said Goldberg, a longtime member of the congregation, which was founded in the late 1950s and has some 280 member units. “Cantor Anna clicks with everybody – no matter who she speaks with. She’s very energetic, always happy and upbeat.”

“She’s accomplished quite a lot in her short time here,” she added. “People love to come and hear her sing.”

Still, said Goldberg, “She wants you to sing. She doesn’t want to stand up there and perform for you. If choir members are present on Shabbat, she says, ‘Come on up and sing with me.’ She’s very inclusive.”

The search committee chair said the synagogue choir has grown more active over the years. The cantor also leads a children’s choir, with some 20 participants.

Zhar comes to Beth Sholom at a time of great change for the congregation. Rabbi Brian Leiken was also hired this summer, following the retirement of Rabbi David Fass, who served the congregation for 34 years. Her predecessor, Cantor Sergei Schwartz, had served the synagogue for 12 years.

Yet Zhar is no stranger to Beth Sholom.

“It goes back to when I started my cantorial life,” said Zhar. “When I was a student cantor, I came and sang here during the High Holy Days.Then my son became a bar mitzvah here, last year.”

In addition, she said, living in a neighboring town and having three children, she came to know many of the other families in the area.

Zhar and her husband, Gary, reside in Congers with children Daniel, 14, Avital, 10, and Roni, 3.

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Cantor Anna Zhar
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