On Shabbat morning, May 3, about 600 people packed Beth Jacob’s Shapell Sanctuary to participate in services, and to join together in song in honor of Israel’s 66th Independence Day. Cantor Arik Wollheim teamed up with a cappella group the Pella Singers LA in leading lively prayer services sung to popular Israeli melodies.
“This is one of the ways in which we show our solidarity with, and love for, the State of Israel and our Israeli brothers and sisters,” says Cantor Wollheim. “These songs will forever be implanted in our hearts and minds, and setting our Tefilah to their melodies serves as a salute to our beloved Jewish state.”
In his drasha, Rabbi Kalman Topp, Beth Jacob’s senior rabbi, compared Sfirat Ha’omer, the time period between Pesach and Shavuot, to Chol Hamoed. Both Chol Hamoed and Sfirat Ha’omer are full of mixed imperatives and emotions – holy as well as mundane, joy as well as sorrow. We observe, in rapid succession, days of mourning – Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron – as well as days of celebration – Yom Ha’atzmaut, and Yom Yerushalayim.
“We’re really living during a Chol Hamoed of Jewish history,” Rabbi Topp remarked. “It’s an in-between period of time – we are not in the depths of exile but also haven’t fully realized redemption. But in this intermediate period we make sure to give attention to the competing elements – the horrific tragedy of the Shoah and all the lives lost – but also the glorious simcha of Israel and the country it has become…. Israel has changed the way we view ourselves. We have renewed confidence as a people.” He noted that like Chol Hamoed “Israel may be a secular institution but it has tremendous sanctity.”
This Shabbat of celebration was part of Beth Jacob’s year-long program aimed at energizing Tefilah and enhancing participation with a new focus on music. The effort had the desired effect, with a large crowd attending services this past Shabbat, and hundreds enthusiastically singing along to familiar tunes. Cantor Wollheim has brought the Pella Singers on twice. He has previously joined forces with the Maccabeats, who co-led Beth Jacob’s High Holiday services with record numbers in attendance. There are plans to host the Maccabeats again in the near future.
“The sound of an a cappella group differs from a traditional choir both in style and form. The idea of combining a contemporary sound with old text and traditional melodies, thus creating something new, is very exciting,” says Cantor Wollheim. “This hybrid approach to music in my mind also represents the philosophy of our shul: building a future that is connected to our past.”