People of all faiths gather in rabbi's honor to sing

Gilah Lewis Sietz, daughter of the late Rabbi Albert L. Lewis, organized Al's chorAL to honor his legacy of music.
Gilah Lewis Sietz, daughter of the late Rabbi Albert L. Lewis, organized Al's chorAL to honor his legacy of music. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2013

Gilah Lewis Sietz searched her soul for a way to memorialize and continue the good works of her late father, Rabbi Albert L. Lewis. For the 60 years he served as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, he had an uncanny ability to communicate with people of all faiths.

But most vividly, she remembers him singing. "And oh, did he love to sing," she said. "All the time."

So when more than 70 people - all faiths, not all singers - showed up for the first rehearsal of Al's chorAl, an interfaith, choral group she lovingly organized, Sietz knew she was right on target.

Member Ann Harrison is a 62-year-old Roman Catholic from Cherry Hill, who says singing in a choir that honors a rabbi brings her closer to God. The former hospital chaplain, who relies on a walker, has sung all her life, in church and professionally.

There's also Miriam Unterweiser, 87, of Voorhees, a first-time singer for whom the choir offers a vibrant social network. "This is the best thing that ever happened to me," said the former legal secretary. "I feel good when I go and I feel even better when I leave."

Sietz, 54, the youngest of the rabbi's three children, came up with the idea two years ago after watching Young @ Heart, a film about a traveling group of singing seniors.

She knew what she had to do: Start a choir for anybody older than 50. There would be no auditions, no fees, no regular attendance requirements - just the desire to sing. "You can show up anytime," said Sietz.

A high-energy Hebrew teacher and mother of two, Sietz recruited a 16-member volunteer board to oversee choir operations, and then sought financial support for rehearsal space and conductor and pianist fees from former congregant Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie and Have a Little Faith, a book he based on the lives of Lewis and a black Detroit pastor, Henry Covington.

"It was a fast yes," said the author, who grew up in Haddon Township, the original location of the synagogue.

Albom clearly remembers his childhood rabbi's love of song and how he used singing to communicate. Even in sermons. "He would sing the phone book," said Albom. "He would make up melodies of anything."

Now the choir, which gets its funding from grants and donations, will present its first concert Thursday, the fifth anniversary of the rabbi's death at age 90. Albom, who delivered Lewis' eulogy in 2008 at the rabbi's request, will attend the concert.

Every Monday evening, the 52-member choir (an additional 20 come less regularly) gathers at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill. A piano, played by 26-year-old professional musician Stanley Fink, sits front and center. Some of the singers are sprightly, while others grip their walkers, moving slowly. Many have previous choir experiences and others had never sung a note. But what they all share, they say, is the music that allows them to forget their worries for an hour and a half.

Unterweiser sings praises for the choir's artistic director and conductor Julia Zavadsky. "She is a little bit of a woman but she knows her stuff."

Zavadsky, 41, barely, 5 feet tall, handily controls, cajoles, and conducts the group with savvy and a sense of humor, often making jokes about remembering the words to the songs. But she remains serious about the music, which includes show tunes, country, pop and soul, and some gospel, with no connection to a religion. "We all believe in something and we are all connected through music," says Zavadsky.

Zavadsky, who holds a doctorate in music, is pleased with what she hears. "Somehow," she said, "we are making music."

Somehow, she says, because the last time members like Alice Reisman sang in a group was more than 50 years ago in high school. Now, the 68-year-old from Pennsauken, a technical support person for Camden County Library, sings every week.

She heard about the group from her mah jongg buddies but nobody wanted to join. "So I went alone," she said. From casual friendships grew deeper ones. "I don't want to leave at the end of the session. Singing makes me happy, more confident. "

Sam Zwetchkenbaum, 51, came to Cherry Hill from Michigan, where he also sang in a choir. Here, he's bonded with other men in the group, and that has led to new friendships, often difficult for guys, he said. "But here making friends was possible."

Albom said that if Lewis could be there, he would be smiling - and knowing the rabbi as well as he did, Albom is sure he would say thank you with a song.


Al's chorAl will perform at 7 p.m., Thursday at Temple Beth Sholom, 1901 Kresson Rd., Cherry Hill. For more information, call 856-244-1257 or visit www.alschoral.org.

Contact Barbara Sorid at bsorid@aol.com.

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