"We cantors use our voices for a lot more than singing," said Steven Stoehr, Senior Cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook. They also use their voices to raise spirits, awareness, and funds.
After the May killing of George Floyd, "the world was more disturbed than it even had been," Stoehr continued. "We heard his tears calling out to us," he said, comparing Floyd to the Torah's Abel.
Stoehr is a member of the Cantors Assembly, which promotes the profession of the Cantorate, serving its 650 members and their congregations. The Assembly, he explained, "wanted to stand in solidarity, to offer an artistic gesture-a musical hug," to the Black community.
New Jersey-based Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro, the Assembly's immediate past president, hit on the idea of gathering singers of both faith communities together for a song. They called the project "Voices for Change."
"We can all lean on… music to heal, elevate, and transform," said Pomerantz-Boro, "so that people feel more deeply connected to one another, to God, and to their own sense of purpose."
The song they chose, "Total Praise," is a 1996 gospel favorite based on Tehilim (Psalm) 121, beginning "Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills… I lift my hands in total praise to You." The Assembly was able to secure its composer, Grammy winner Richard Smallwood, as the conductor for the performance.
Ultimately, 100 singers from across the U.S., Canada, Israel, and Uruguay joined in. They included some other local voices: Cantor Matan Meital, Cantor Pavel Roytman, and cantorial soloist Laurie Akers.
The video of their performance will raise funds for scholarships at the Afro-American Music Institute in Pittsburgh.
One of the singers, Cantors Assembly member Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, heads the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh, which was attacked in 2018 by a gunman who killed 11 people.
"We want to show solidarity and support with our Black brothers and sisters," said Myers, "and believe our voices can be used to create positive change in the world."
The video also includes a 20-minute conversation between Myers and Reverend Eric Manning of Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, S.C. His congregation was attacked in 2015 by a gunman who killed nine people. Within days of the Pittsburgh shooting, Manning contacted Myers, and the two have struck up a friendship.
"Music has a way of bringing different communities together, providing healing and encouragement to communities that had suffered trauma," said Manning. "With our communities coming together to sing, we celebrate that there is more that unites us than divides us, and that our combined histories are interwoven together."
The video can be viewed on the Cantors Assembly website cantors.org/voicesforchange and its Facebook page facebook.com/CantorsAssembly. Those who share the video are asked to support the Afro-American Music Institute: afroamericanmusic.org/scholarships.