After the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to consume the world last March, Elizabeth Sternlieb was looking for a way that she could use her talents to help people in need.
Sternlieb, the cantor at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, came up with the answer after watching food lines grow, many with people who had never needed help before: she would bring together cantorial colleagues and Jewish musicians from around the United States to present a concert to help those in need.
In December, Sternlieb organized the first concert that included nine cantors and musicians for a virtual concert that helped raise more than $5,500 for the non-profit organization MAZON, which fights hunger in some of the neediest communities in the United States and Israel. (The word mazon, pronounced mah-ZONE, is Hebrew for meal.)
Sternlieb said although MAZON is a Jewish organization, it helps anyone regardless of faith.
“Our synagogue, obviously, we always try to do whatever we can with food drives and pajama drives and different drives and whatever we can think of to offer assistance to those in need,” Sternlieb said. “Then around November we were seeing these food lines growing and growing and people who had never needed assistance were all of a sudden finding themselves in a position that they were really desperate.”
This Sunday at 8 p.m., Sternlieb has organized a second virtual concert, Cantors Coast to Coast: Songs of Sustenance for COVID Relief, with an all-star group of 11 cantors, Jewish spiritual leaders, music directors and musicians from around the United States looking to do their part to help those hit hard by hunger, made worse for many by the pandemic.
For a contribution of $18, the anticipated 75-minute concert not only looks to make another contribution to MAZON to help feed the nation’s hungry, but also provide a stipend to performers, many of whom saw their sources of income disappear overnight.
“Those of us who have a synagogue job, some of us have taken pay cuts just because of circumstances in synagogues,” Sternlieb said. “But people who are hand to mouth, everything dried up quickly. So that group of people, the musicians, it was important to me to include them and also they get paid for the work.”
The concert will feature mainly original works with Jewish themes written by many of the participants, Sternlieb said. Much of the music will be in English, although there will be some prayers that will be interspersed, she said. Sternlieb will be introducing each performer.
“It’s done in a sensitive enough way that I think anyone of any faith would find it inspiring,” Sternlieb said.
Included in the program is a tribute to Meir Finkelstein, the cantor at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston. Over the years, he has been is one of the most prolific composers of Jewish liturgical music in addition to writing scores for television and documentaries. Finkelstein was one of the youngest people to become a cantor at 14 years old, Sternlieb said.
The finale will be a choral production with each performer having recorded his or her part separately, and then mixed by a sound engineer to make it appear as though they are singing as one group.
Another first is how there will be representation from each of the five branches of Judaism, which is not a small feat. Sternlieb said it is against tradition in the Orthodox Jewish community for men to sing with women. But one of the performers, the acclaimed Cantor Netanel Hershtik of Hampton Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Westhampton, N.Y.
However, since Hershtik is “commandment minded,” he agreed to participate, Sternlieb explained.
“It is the most important thing, always, to save a life, so I believe he heeded this as an opportunity to fulfill that commandment, and so he was very excited about being part of this,” she said.