News / USA

New York's Jews Unite to Help Haiti

Musicians, social activists contribute to benefit

Singer-Songwriter Basya Schechter combines Jewish traditional music with a downtown rocker's sensibility in her performance.
Singer-Songwriter Basya Schechter combines Jewish traditional music with a downtown rocker's sensibility in her performance.

Multimedia

Audio

It's just after seven p.m. on a recent bitter cold evening and the cavernous sanctuary of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side is bursting. Jewish musicians and congregants are among the people who have turned out for the second benefit for Haiti in as many weeks.

Cantor Daniel Singer, the synagogue's music director, says the event meets three of traditional Judaism's key objectives: education, worship and acts of loving kindness. "It's heart-wrenching to watch the sadness of what's going on in this ravaged country," says Singer. "And it's so important to address and to make people aware of it. That really speaks to the core of what music can do to help a real life situation. This is not just entertainment."

The event is sponsored by the Workmen's Circle, a century-old Jewish cultural and social justice organization. "This is our expression of Judaism," says Executive Director Ann Toback. "If you look at Judaism, the texts and the history, it's really a culture of activism. It's not about looking inward. It's about looking outward."

The Workmen's Circle sponsored the benefit for Haiti.
The Workmen's Circle sponsored the benefit for Haiti.

Toback says community members inundated the Workmen's Circle offices with offers of help immediately after the earthquake. "Because when you're committed to an outward focus, you can't sit silently when people are in need." 

Adrienne Cooper, the group's program director, often quotes an ancient Jewish text that likens saving a life to saving an entire world. "And a disaster of this magnitude… could overwhelm any community, including our own. So it's not possible to erect a barrier that says 'this is mine, this is somebody else's suffering."

On Common Ground

Although the Workmen's Circle is a secular Jewish organization, these sentiments are strongly echoed in Judaism, according to Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. "The essence of religion can be reduced to the response to the cry 'help me,'" says Hirsch. "Religious people believe that all human beings are endowed with the spirit of the divine and contain within them the spark of God. When a human being is diminished, the spark of God is diminished. And so we have an obligation to do what we can."

Hirsch says the central task of Judaism is to perfect the world, a concept called 'tikkun olam', in Hebrew. "You must act. Jews believe good intentions are important, of course. But in the end, we're measured by outcomes."

 

Haitian drum virtuoso Frisner Augustin performed with Frank London and the Klezmer Brass All-Stars.
Haitian drum virtuoso Frisner Augustin performed with Frank London and the Klezmer Brass All-Stars.

Benefit Draws Musicians and Money for Haiti Help

Judging by outcomes, the benefit for Haiti appears to be a success. More than 100 musicians perform in the evening program, raising about $14,000. The performers include 13 cantors who sing an ancient Jewish religious melody that recalls the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, traditionally considered God's holy home on earth. "And rebuilding homes is what this concert is all about," says Singer, the synagogue's musical director. "We're here to rebuild homes, [and to] help rebuild lives."

Jewish religious songs are not the only artistry on the program. Basya Schechter, a singer who combines traditional songs with a downtown rocker's sensibility, wows the crowd and a troupe from the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene also performs.    

Adrienne Cooper of the Workmen's Circle is also a Yiddish singer who performs with her daughter Sarah Gordon. She says her fellow musicians feel a powerful need to help those suffering from the Haiti quake and its aftermath. "Because artists are connected to one another and dependent on one another for influences, for being nurtured by other people's sounds, and because they are a bit vulnerable in society, they really feel a visceral and simple affinity and need to respond." 

Cooper believes music and art are fundamental expressions of our shared humanity. "When you raise your voice or speak through your instrument, it's how you convey compassion, anger, love and hope. Any of those things, said through music with an audience, becomes why you make art."

Frank London helped organize musicians for the Haiti benefit.
Frank London helped organize musicians for the Haiti benefit.

Building Bridges 

Much of tonight's art crosses cultural boundaries, says Jewish World Music trumpeter Frank London. The leader of Klezmer Brass All-Stars shared the Stephen Wise stage with renowned Haitian drummer Frisner Augustin. 

"The moment is so joyful you want to laugh and smile, and then you're thinking about what's happened and you want to cry." London pauses for a long moment to gather his thoughts "The fullness of the human condition is brought to the fore in a situation like this," he says, with a smile.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Troops Depart

Afghans are grappling with how exodus will affect country's fragile economy More

Video Scientists Say We Need Softer Robots

Today’s robots are mostly hard, rigid machines, with sharp edges and forceful movements, but researchers at Carnegie Mellon University say they should be softer and therefore safer More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs