‘We can be emissaries to people of other faiths’
Questions for Cantor Steven Stoehr
Last month, Cantor Steven Stoehr presented a mini-concert and program on the Holocaust: How Much More Personal Can It Get? at Adath Israel Congregation of Lawrenceville. On Jan. 23, at 7:30 p.m., the synagogue will present a documentary in whose production he played a key role.
The film, 100 Voices: A Journey Home, is about a 2009 visit by 200 American cantors and their congregants to Poland. It follows the cantors as they perform and through their exploration of the cultural legacy and destruction of Polish Jewry.
As a past president of the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly, Stoehr, himself the son of a survivor, coordinated the cantors’ appearance at Auschwitz-Birkenau that is featured in the film.
Stoehr, a native of Pittsburgh who has served as cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill., for the past 24 years, spoke with NJ Jewish News by phone on Jan. 6.
NJJN: Can you describe the experience of performing at the site of Nazi death camps?
Stoehr: We held a morning minyan service at Auschwitz and later a memorial program at Birkenau with over 200 people, including cantors and members of our communities from all over the United States. It was very powerful. To the best of my knowledge it was the first organized minyan on the grounds of Auschwitz since its liberation.
We said words that probably many of those incarcerated had wished they had the freedom to daven. We were out in the open with our tallises, our tefillin, our Torah, and what I decided to do that day was to call the survivors and second-generation family members to the center of our gathering. We unfurled a Torah scroll and rolled it around everybody, and one of our members chanted a memorial prayer. It was visceral. It was powerful. You could hear people sobbing and crying. It was a very cathartic feeling.
NJJN: Did your group have any special connections with those who survived or perished there?
Stoehr: There were a couple of people whose family members had survived or perished. My father is a Holocaust survivor, but not of a death camp. He spent a number of years as a laborer in the coal mines of Siberia.
NJJN: What was your experience with the Polish people? Did you find any anti-Semitism?
Stoehr: There were some small signs of anti-Semitism still visible, and some Polish nationals who still feel guilt or sorrow over what happened during that period of time. But all of our performances were before sellout crowds. It was fascinating to look around and try to imagine what was going through people’s minds. It was a cacophony of possibilities.
NJJN: Describe the experience of being a cantor and performing in Poland.
Stoehr: I think the unique calling of the cantor is that we are blessed with this international language called music. Through the prism of music we are able to perform in a place like Poland — and we are going to Germany this summer to open up dialogues with people and places we never would think we would want to speak to again.
Through this gift of music we can be emissaries to people of other faiths. This film shows that in a very beautiful way.