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."
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."
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."
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.