Delaware Valley Cantors Bring Back In-Person Concert

The Delaware Valley Region of the Cantors Assembly (Courtesy of Cantor Stephen Freedman)

Cantor Jen Cohen, now in her 15th year at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, grew to enjoy Zoom services during the pandemic: She led songs and prayers over the digital connection from her dining room, with her dog at her side.

“It felt important to be able to do that,” she said.

But even as she enjoyed the new normal, Cohen recognized that it couldn’t last forever. Now, she’s relieved that it’s over.

“Three years is a long time to be apart, and I think we all feel much more together now. We haven’t been in lockdown for a long time. We’re using our social muscles again,” Cohen added.

On Dec. 11 at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park, Cohen and 13 other cantors in the Delaware Valley will not only use their social muscles but flex them.

The Delaware Valley Region of the Cantors Assembly is bringing back its annual pre-Chanukah concert. For the first time since before the pandemic in 2019, it will be in person.

The show starts at 4 p.m. Tickets are available on the synagogue’s website at or by calling 215-635-1505. General admission is $18 in advance and $25 at the door, according to an event flyer. You can become a donor and get a better seat: Shammash-level donors give $36; Menorahs donate $72; and Maccabees offer $118.

The concert drew between 100 and 300 attendees in pre-COVID times, according to Cantor Stephen Freedman of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El. He said this year’s ticket sales are moving toward 100 people. If the Elkins Park synagogue opens its auditorium, it can accommodate as many as 250 guests. The cantor is confident that the audience will grow as the event gets closer. Chanukah begins a week later on Dec. 18.

“It’s an opportunity to hear over a dozen cantors from the Delaware Valley region singing together as an ensemble, and also singing solos and duets,” Freedman said. “You’re going to hear music that you would not hear from the bimah on a typical Shabbat.”

The cantors will focus on “a number of themes,” Freedman added. The main one is the Festival of Lights, which is where the concert’s title, “We’ll Light up Your Life,” comes from. But Chanukah will cede the stage to other bright lights during the night, including Israel’s upcoming 75th anniversary and a set of Broadway selections.

During the Chanukah portion of the show, the group will sing “We are Lights,” a song about the holiday written by Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the Tony Award-winning musical “Wicked.” Later, they will perform a piece by Salamone Rossi, an Italian composer who published the first known piece of Jewish liturgical music in 1622, according to Cantor David Tilman, the choir director at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel and a member of the ensemble.

Two cantors will sing “For Good” from “Wicked.” Another is going to belt out “America” from the 1980 remake of “The Jazz Singer” starring Neil Diamond. And one will perform “I Am Easily Assimilated,” a tune from “Candide,” a 1956 operetta based on the 1759 Voltaire novella.

“It’s kind of like an eclectic concert,” Freedman said. “But with some really spectacular voices.”

Freedman and his cohorts organized a show during COVID, too, just online and prerecorded. And as Cohen said of Zoom services, the cantors grew to enjoy their digital concert as well. But it was not the same.

In-person, “you get the vibe of the audience,” Freedman said. At a prerecorded event, there’s no applause at the end of each number. In a sanctuary or auditorium, there is, and then performers respond to that. And then the audience responds to the charisma of the individual singers and the ensemble.

“It’s kind of the difference between listening to an album that an artist produces in the studio as opposed to going to an arena to hear that same band,” he added. “The music is equally beautiful at both. But the feeling you get from having a live presence is exciting.”

Cantor Stephen Freedman of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park (Courtesy of Cantor Stephen Freedman)

The cantorial group includes seven men, seven women and the entire range of singing voices — from soprano to bass. And cantors, Tilman explained, are happiest when they sing as a group because “the music comes together” and “the harmony is unbelievably wonderful.”

Cohen said she enjoyed the High Holidays this past year because services were at capacity again. This concert will feel similar.

“We do this to make people sing together and to make a joyful noise,” she said. JE

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