Cantor’s Songs Woo Socialites
Park East Synagogue’s sold-out Selichot service is a place for the community’s elite to gather
This Saturday night at midnight, synagogues around the country will hold their annual Selichot service. Selichot, translated as “rituals of forgiveness,” is an ancient set of prayers that intensifies the process of repentance that began with the start of the Hebrew month of Elul. The liturgy consists of dense, often poetic texts and prayers that exude a sad dirge-like tone, painting a plaintive environment for absolution.
Yet at New York’s majestic Park East Synagogue, this night of intense introspection has turned into a major occasion for the city’s most prominent socialites, a must-attend event for the wealthy and powerful. Park East has always stood as a place not only to see other people but to be seen, akin to a meeting of diplomats. But even here, Selichot stands out—because of the service and the audience alike. Whether the initial draw for this weekend’s event is the cantor’s singing or the rabbi’s speech, Selichot at Park East has become an important event on the social calendars of New York’s elite, a place to rub elbows with the who’s who of Jewish society.
In recent years, the service has provided enough bold-face names to fill an entire Page Six column: from comedian Jackie Mason to photographer Ron Agam, from attorney and author Alan Dershowitz to Israel Bonds President Israel Tapoohi, from developer Charlie Kushner and his son, publisher Jared Kushner, to the real-estate titans in the Wilf family—not to mention prominent communal leaders like Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
After Richard B. Stone was named the new chairman of the Presidents Conference last year, he was personally invited to Selichot by Park East’s Rabbi Arthur Schneier. “I did not realize what an important and spectacular event it was till I got there,” Stone recalled, noting that the standing-room-only crowd—roughly 1,000 attendees in a shul that draws just over 100 for a normal Shabbat service—includes a diverse mix of people, “from important lay leaders to devout Hasidim.”
“It really feels like a major concert at Lincoln Center,” said Stone. “It’s an event I would not want to miss.”
The notion of having an important, must-attend Selichot service dates back some time, albeit in a somewhat different way. During what some refer to as the golden age of hazzanut, the period between the World Wars, cantors used Selichot night to showcase their talents, often winning people over to their services for the High Holidays based on the performance of Selichot night. Samuel Rosenblatt, the son of the revered cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, relates in his 1954 biography Yossele Rosenblatt that while his father used to start Selichot late in the night at 4 a.m., lines would gather for his performance starting at 2 a.m. Yet, with dwindling interest, fewer and fewer congregations kept alive this cantorial tradition.
One of the last bastions of this tradition of hazzanut, Park East has maintained the ritual of creating an authentic cantorial experience for Selichot, a concert performance of sorts. And for decades, as a result, Selichot at Park East has garnered a packed house; while numerous rows are allotted for members, many of the annual attendees come just for this event.
The once-free concert has grown into a sold-out event at Park East, with ticket prices ranging from $50 to $180, because of Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot and his stentorian yet nuanced voice. Helfgot, whom many see as having ushered in a new golden age of hazzanut, or cantorial music, has performed in synagogues and concert halls around the world. On Sept. 4, Helfgot released a CD with violinist Itzhak Perlman titled Eternal Echoes: Songs & Dances of the Soul. Selichot represents a sort of annual command performance for him.
“I feel like I have been entrusted to open the gates of selichot, to forgiveness,” said Helfgot, who is accompanied by a choir at the service. “I feel that the congregation is behind me and they are waiting patiently for me to open the gates, and when I begin the prayers, I feel like I have triggered the beginning of the forgiveness season.”
Dershowitz, an avowed “Helfgot groupie,” explains that the cantor is the main draw for this weekend’s service. “Selichot is the best time to go,” he said, noting that the service, although “lengthy,” is also “easy on the ears, and meaningful.” He added simply: “Helfgot gives an amazing performance.”
Schneier, an influential rabbi who has hosted world leaders from Pope Benedict XVI to Bono at Park East, also turns Selichot into a uniquely important service with his traditional State of World Jewry address every year. “The eve of the New Year is a time for reflection and assessment on the State of Israel and world Jewry in a multi-polar world of transition,” Schneier said. “What attracts the people is this assessment of what is the condition and the challenges of how to respond to heightened anti-Semitism, to confront the existential threat that Israel faces.”
Between Schneier’s address and Helfgot’s singing, though, there will be plenty of glances going around the congregation, as those in attendance make mental notes of all the bold-face names.
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