Trip to Eastern Europe, Music on Their Minds

Earlier this month, a dozen members of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park visited an old hidden synagogue in the Terezin concentration camp outside Prague.

There, walking silently across the hallowed ground, the congregants began to memorialize the space in the best way they knew how: They sang.

"We had to add our voices to the stilled voices of the people that prayed in this room," explained Cantor David F. Tilman, who led the group in a rendition of Psalm 145. "We were in the room, and we just felt we had to do something."

The song was perhaps the most impromptu performance the Beth Sholom men's choir delivered during their 13-day trip through Eastern Europe.

The concert tour, which left June 25 and returned July 5, also included scheduled performances at synagogues and museums in Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; and Warsaw. The final performance was part of a Fourth of July celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw.

At each location, the group sang a medley of liturgical, American and Israeli music, including pieces like "Bashanah Haba'ah," "L'Dor Vador" and selections from "Fiddler on the Roof." Performance pieces also included a barbershop quartet, an African-American spiritual and a klezmer arrangement.

"The goal was to reach out to these people let them know Jewish life is vibrant and wonderful in the United States," said Tilman, a longtime writer on cantorial and classical music for the Jewish Exponent.

He added that the choir, which ordinarily sings strictly liturgical pieces during synagogue services, had spent the better part of the year expanding its repertoire. He attributed the idea for the trip to his wife Ellen, whose parents are from Eastern Europe.

"We wanted to reach out to the Jewish community of these towns, but also to touch our own roots — to see the environment from which we came," he said.

The trip itself was organized by Ayelet Tours in New York, and included visits to many of the major Jewish sights in the region, such as the Jewish quarter in Prague and the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"You know, the communities in these places will never be the same — Hitler took care of millions …, " said the cantor, trailing off. "But these communities are surviving, they're growing. They're not exactly flourishing, but they're surviving."

Tilman said that one of the thrills of his career was leading Shabbat services in Budapest's Dohány Street Synagogue.

"I did the feel the weight of Eastern European Jewry on my shoulders," he said. "I felt the weight of all the cantors that have led from that pulpit."

The trip was also "extremely moving" for Jay Leistner, a baritone who attended with his wife, Marcia Halpern.

"I was choked up most of the time I was singing," said Leistner, 53, of Elkins Park. "Instead of just site-seeing — just taking and seeing — we were bringing something to the countries as well. We were able to contribute something at the same time we were soaking things in."



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