The Cantor’s Assembly has long been involved in outreach, said Cantor Riki Lippitz, longtime chazzan of Oheb Shalom in South Orange, when we spoke about the CA’s most recent project, Voices for Change. The video, a collaborative performance of the work “Total Praise” — a reworking by African American gospel artist Richard Smallwood of Psalm 121 — combines the voices of some 100 cantors and black music ministers from around the world.
“Total Praise” was originally composed in 1996 to promote faith and healing. “We can all lean in on faith and music to heal,” said Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro, immediate past president of the Cantors Assembly — a group of Conservative chazzanim — who came up with the idea for the video. At least three local cantors — Cantor Lippitz, Perry Fine of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, and Estelle Epstein of Teaneck — participated in the project.
Before discussing the video, Cantor Lippitz paid tribute some of the CA’s earlier outreach efforts. For example, she cited the fundraising drive launched the organization launched in May for the Abayudaya Jews of Uganda on learning that they were “literally starving” as a result of the lockdown in their country. “The CA organized across the Conservative movement, and the entire Jewish community, to create an emergency fundraising drive to purchase food and have it delivered,” she said. The assembly also created Israel’s only national b’nai mitzvah program for children with disabilities, Adraba, now run by the Masorti movement. (Masorti is the Conservative movement outside North America.)
Cantor Lippitz, who has been at Oheb Shalom for 34 years – “It’s a beautiful shidduch,” she said – noted that the CA strongly encouraged all interested cantors to participate in Voices for Change. “It’s so much a part of our mission,” she said, calling it “a way, at a time of such insane division, to speak about the sisterhood and brotherhood of all people of faith.”
When information about the proposed video came out in July – when large-scale protests were engulfing the nation and the Black Lives Matter movement was sensitizing the country to racial injustice — “we already knew that we would have to take a stand and be part of this,” she said. “When you are privileged to be a community of influence, the clergy, you have a greater obligation to speak out and give support to those who are oppressed.”
While she did not know the Black music ministers who participated in the video, Cantor Lippitz belongs to a regional clergy association and knows ministers in her local community. Many cantors belong to regional interfaith groups and participate in projects at the local level, she said. Her colleague, Cantor Perry Fine, is one example. Among other ventures, he is a co-founder with two black music ministers of Voices in Harmony, an interfaith choral ensemble created in 1998. More recently, Cantor Fine co-founded and conducts Voices of Livingston. The two groups now are joined as Voices in Harmony of Essex County. Describing the choir, “whose mission is to use music as a way of building community,” Cantor Fine said, “It’s a great joy of the cantorate, to make music with Jews and with non-Jews as part of interfaith services, celebrations, and concerts.”
“Music traverses so many boundaries,” Cantor Lippitz said. “It’s a vehicle for peace-making. For understanding one another. It provides a vehicle for human contact, to bring people together, and to create beauty.” A singer joins with others “not to debate ideas but to affirm what we can all affirm – faith, each other’s value. It’s a unifier in the face of divisive politics.”
Cantor Lippitz said that not only did she already know the piece “Total Praise,” but she had taught it to the New Jersey regional Jewish choir Kol Dodi, which she directs. The choir, founded in 1991, with 50 singers from across the region, “has done interfaith work and sung in both interfaith events and secular settings, like the Newark museum,” she said. “Jewish choirs want to be involved in general community events.”
The message of “Total Praise” is particularly appropriate now, Cantor Lippitz said. “It says, ‘God is my help and my strength.’ God won’t reach down and fix something, but He will give us the strength to persevere, to bear whatever life throws at us.
“It’s not a simplistic piece about praise,” she continued. “It acknowledges that a life of faith can help us bear the difficulties that come our way.” And that, she said, is especially helpful right now.
Besides being helpful, “this piece is beautiful. It’s a piece whose sheer beauty is moving the first time you hear it.” But the video goes even further, urging viewers with spare funds to donate to the Afro-American Music Institute. Thus, she said, we are using the “beautiful tool” of music to benefit the community.
Cantor Epstein said the seeds for the video were planted in the spring. In the face of a societal upheaval over race, “We had to do something, and we wanted to do something musical.” She was moved to participate because she marched with the BLM movement in Teaneck in the spring, and that experience helped her realize the importance of advocating for racial equality. In addition, she said, “Cantors haven’t been able to sing together.” Before the the pandemic, she sang with the New Jersey Cantors Concert Ensemble, which meets twice a month. “We miss singing together,” Cantor Epstein.
Like Cantor Lippitz, Cantor Epstein also has sung “Total Praise.” “It’s based on the Esa Einai psalm,” she said, noting that “the singing combines English and Hebrew words.” Participants were sent very detailed instructions on how to make a recording of their voice part. Ultimately, a professional editor put the submissions together.
The video begins with an introduction by Pastor Eric Manning of Charleston, S.C., and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Pittsburgh, who briefly discuss why faith is more important than ever. Rabbi Myers has been the rabbi and cantor for the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh since the summer of 2017. Pastor Manning, whose congregation experienced its own tragedy in 2015, when a white supremacist murdered nine worshippers, reached out to Rabbi Myers, and the two have become friends.
“I personally believe that music hits people,” that it affects them deeply on an emotional level, Cantor Epstein said. Even though she participated in the video, when she first watched the finished product, “it brought me to tears, seeing all the people together, singing the words, ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills.’” Churches often use Smallwood arrangement, she said. While synagogues generally do not, many Jews know the Carlebach version of “Esa Einai.”
“I’m glad I participated,” she said. “It’s a very moving piece. It speaks to today, about help in difficult times. It’s a hopeful message.”
Perry Fine has been involved in interfaith work throughout his entire career as a cantor, both in the South Orange/Maplewood community, where he served on the Coalition on Race, and now in Livingston. When he heard that the CA was putting together cantors and black ministers of music, “I said I have to be part of it.”
He already knew the song. “It’s common to both traditions,” he said. “Composer Richard Smallwood has written a magnificent setting,” which is popular not only in black churches but throughout the Christian world. Having a chance to perform this together, “in light of racial tensions, it just seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
Aside from the text, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help,” which conveys a message of aspiration, hope, and a greater force than ourselves, Cantor Fine sees a message in the very presentation of the piece, bringing together two communities. “There’s more in common than not in common,” he said. “There’s a shared mission, to make the world better, and to find commonality among people. It shows that the Jewish community is here to support you in times of tension.” Expressing this message through music is a very Jewish idea, he said; while the Jewish tradition certainly features the spoken word, “services are sung. Music touches the soul, the neshama, the deepest part of us. It’s so much more effective.”
Cantor Fine plans to use the video in an upcoming interfaith Thanksgiving service at Beth Sholom. “Since we cannot bring together our choirs in the normal way, my suggestion was to use the psalm. We’ll read it first, then play the video and explain what it is. It’s a good message for this celebration.” And, he added, “It’s an exciting piece of music. Good music, performed well, is inspiring to sing and to hear.”
At least two other local cantors — Matt Axelrod of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains and Sheldon Levin of Neve Shalom in Metuchen — also are part of the project.
According to a statement from the Cantor’s Assembly, the video is up on the organization’s website (www.cantors.org/voicesforchange) and on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/CantorsAssembly). Members of all faith groups are asked to consider making a donation to support the Afro-American Music Institute. The Institute has a music program scholarship fund to promote opportunities for young Black musicians as well as seniors living in senior centers. To learn more or make a donation, go to www.afroamericanmusic.org/scholarships.