The ex-settler, Harley-driving cantor who's gracing Park Avenue

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Azi Schwartz was up on the pulpit last week at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. On Rosh Hashanah too he led a service at the grand Conservative synagogue – but accompanied by an orchestra of 50 New York Metropolitan Opera musicians, before a mixed male-female crowd. In the Orthodox establishment he comes from, people like him are described as “worse than Christians.” Sometimes they are the target of threats as well.

Schwartz, 40, grew up in the settlement of Alon Shvut outside Jerusalem and studied in the city’s Netiv Meir Yeshiva. Today he is married to Noa, a former Tel Avivian who is a researcher and clinician in the field of rheumatology; the couple have four children, ages 3 to 14. His profession: cantor. But not just any cantor. In the New York davening circuit, Schwartz is a bona fide star.

He’s appeared at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, the United Nations and on Capitol Hill. In 2016 he sang at an ecumenical prayer session in memory of the victims of 9/11, attended by the pope, among others. He played the part of the cantor in Israeli director Joseph Cedar’s 2017 film “Norman: The Rise and Fall of an American Macher,” starring Richard Gere. A year later he performed in “The New York Cantors” televised concert, which attracted tens of millions of views in the United States and Europe. In Israel he has performed, among other venues, at the Knesset, the Yad Vashem Holocaust center and with the Israeli Philharmonic in Tel Aviv.

The Park Avenue Synagogue has been around for 140 years and constitutes the heart of New York’s large Conservative community. On the High Holy Days it operates two prayer halls (in the main sanctuary, on 87th Street between Park and Madison, and at a venue at 89th Street between Madison and Fifth) and rents out the church next door, as often happens in the city’s interfaith world. Demand during the fall holidays typically outstrips supply: The jewel in the crown at the synagogue is the broadcast of High Holy Day services to hundreds of thousands of Jews in America and around the world, for which the entire building is fitted out with cameras and lighting fixtures and sound equipment.

“We have better gear here than at Broadway theaters,” Schwartz says, as we tour the synagogue and reach its control room. “They have invested $250,000 here in technological upgrades. We also launched a new online platform. We’ve hired a digital content manager and a production manager – not exactly typical jobs in a synagogue.”

Ne'ila prayer at the Park Park Avenue Synagogue, 2014.

Schwartz himself is far from a typical cantor. He cruises the streets of Manhattan on a motorcycle and is even a member of a Harley Davidson bikers club. And in the sanctuary he has a penchant for unusual musical choices, some of which remind one of Broadway.

“We’re a bit of an odd family,” he tells Haaretz. “My older sister is Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a well-known liberal jurist [in Israel]. My older brother, Prof. Shai Shalev-Shwartz, is a groundbreaking mathematician in the field of machine learning and is the CTO of Mobileye. My sister Renana Eitan works in neuro-psychiatric research, and my younger brother, Udi Schwartz, a rabbi, writes halakhic decisions on behalf of Israel’s military rabbinate. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, a founder of the [dovish-religious] Meimad movement was a good friend of my parents.”

Schwartz discovered his love of cantorial music at a young age: “I would sit on the lap of my grandpa, who had been a cantor back in Hungary. He was the one who predicted that I’d follow in his footsteps. My mother and father weren’t keen on the notion. Even when I later enrolled at the Jerusalem Academy of Music, they had reservations. In 2005 I went to New York to study conducting and singing at the Mannes conservatory of The New School, and got a job as a cantor at the Park East Synagogue – an Orthodox shul.

"At Mannes I studied classical music. In the Orthodox shul there were only male voices [in the choir].” After moving to Manhattan, Schwartz says, he was exposed to the writings of the famous theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, which was a real eye-opener for him.

“I knew that there were Orthodox and secular people,” he explains. “I’d heard of the Women of the Wall [who are fighting for egalitarian worship at Jerusalem’s Western Wall], but I didn’t grasp the fact that there are six million Conservative Jews in the United States, some of whom live a rich religious and cultural Jewish life. This was insane to me. I went on a journey following the Judaism and the music, and that involved leaving the Orthodox framework.” In 2009 he joined the Park Avenue Synagogue.

Cantor Azi Schwartz in the Park Avenue Synagogue, last year. "I have to provide a spiritual, cultural, authentic, family-oriented, moving, experience – familiar but unexpected." Credit: Karen Small

You had no second thoughts?

“I definitely did. My parents find my decision hard to accept. They come from a different world. They wouldn’t set foot in my synagogue. But they watch the clips I put on YouTube and listen to my albums. They’re glad I’m continuing in Grandpa’s footsteps, but they have a problem with me being in a Conservative synagogue. I understand it, I love my parents and keep in touch with them any way I can despite the differences in our worldviews.

"At my son’s bar mitzvah they told me not to expect them to show up and asked for a separate event. That didn’t happen because of COVID. My brothers and sisters came to see me here, but my younger brother didn’t. But all in all we’re okay with each another. When there is love, it bridges the gaps. You have to understand that in New York things work differently. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and cantors have no problem cooperating with each other. I sometimes work with Haredim [ultra-Orthodox].”

‘Spiritual high’

Membership in a synagogue in New York can be very expensive: $5,000 to $10,000 is not an unusual annual fee. At Park Avenue the fee begins at $1,800 for an individual or $3,000 for a family, not including seats for the High Holy Days. Seats in the main minyan (prayer quorum) in the sanctuary for the holidays are inherited or purchased for tens of thousands or even sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars.

People with deep pockets are also expected to make large contributions. There’s a good reason for that: Synagogues in the United States are not supported by public funding. Everything comes from membership fees and donations. At Park Avenue, for example, the annual operating budget is $18 million. And yet, money doesn’t stand in anyone’s way: Those who are unable to pay receive discounts or even a total exemption.

Are there Israelis in your congregation?

“We have almost no Israeli members. Most Israelis I know find it very difficult to accept the idea of paying to go to a synagogue. Nor do Israelis have a culture of making donations.”

In Israel the synagogue is seen as a place of worship. Here it’s really a show.

“In the United States a synagogue also serves as a communal-social center, an educational center, a school, a kindergarten, a youth center, a venue for lectures and cultural events, performances, charitable activities, family celebrations and even funerals. There’s a place for shared meals and large kiddush spreads [refreshments after services]. There’s someone who organizes tours on Jewish topics. Everything is done under one roof – it’s the heart of the Jewish lives of its congregation.”

Cantor Azi Schwartz appearing with Gospel singer Valerie Simpson, at the Park Avenue Synagogue, in 2019. “The emphasis in progressive Judaism is not on isolating ourselves from Christianity."Credit: Yadin Goldman

“Because for us the emphasis in Judaism is not commandments or obligations (nobody is forced to go to the synagogue) – there’s a big investment in the prayer experience. In effect we’re competing for people’s time and attention. And believe me, in this city there’s loads of competition. People here always have something to do and they’re always very busy.

“So when they arrive at the synagogue to pray, I have to give them a very good reason to come and to want to return. I have to provide a spiritual, Jewish, cultural, authentic, family-oriented, personal, moving, intellectual, unique experience – familiar but unexpected. An experience where they’ll leave saying ‘Wow, we’re so glad we came.’

“And here’s where music enters the picture. Singing and music have the power to create all that and to bring the worshippers to a spiritual high. We don’t come to mumble words. We relate to every letter, sound and moment in prayer as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to touch people’s hearts.”

Sounds sort of Christian.

“Jewish music has always been influenced by the non-Jewish surroundings. The better Jews were treated, the more profoundly local music was adopted into the synagogue. And still, despite these influences, the texts of the prayers and the cantillation signs [for Torah readings] have very old foundations. [But] you have to remember that most of our traditional melodies are not really so ancient.

Kol Nidrei prayer at Park Avenue Synagogue, 2016.

"The melody for the Kol Nidrei prayer [on Yom Kippur], for example, is considered to be old, but it only goes back a few hundred years. Melodies become traditional within a very short time. That’s why I also believe in the importance of creating new melodies and new traditions. To show respect for the past, but not at the price of turning Jewish music into a museum exhibit.”

You have an orchestra during the services.

“True. We use musical instruments in addition to the mixed [male-female] choir. That’s a tradition that the founders of the congregation, German Jews, brought with them. The use of an organ to accompany prayers was popular in 19th-century Germany. Of course it sounds Christian, but no more than many other elements in the synagogue, in prayer and in Judaism.

“The emphasis in progressive Judaism is not on isolating ourselves from Christianity, but on seeking ways of creating an experience of spiritual elevation and finding relevance for developing Jewish culture in the ancient Jewish sources. In the past decade I've expanded the use of the organ with additional instruments in order to cater to the current musical tastes and to enable a broader richness of style. On the High Holy Days there's a real orchestra. Most of the players are not Jewish.”

When I first heard a choir and an orchestra in New York synagogues, I have to admit that it sounded strange.

“I’m familiar with the Israelis’ initial shock. Surprise and sometimes also hesitation as well. But after a short time, almost always, I also hear ‘Walla, it’s amazing, we didn’t think that was possible. If we had a synagogue like that we would go every week.’ Look, it’s important for us to see and hear one another. Awareness usually leads to mutual respect. Everything is done with the realization that Judaism and religion can be defined in various and sundry ways.”

I have a hard time with the organ.

“That doesn’t surprise me. You’re seizing on the subject of the organ, but look at the whole picture. Where did the robe and the strange hat we cantors wear come from? Where did the seating arrangement in the synagogue come from? After all, the synagogue in Sepphoris [an ancient synagogue in the Galilee] didn’t look like that. The goal of the German Jews during the Enlightenment period was to forge a connection to the place where they lived. That was emancipation. The organ was part of that. Incidentally, in the Temple there was an organ, although it was different. Christianity adopted it.”

Grappling with assimilation

Cantor Azi Schwartz performing with producer-composer Ray Chew at the Park Avenue Synagogue, in 2019. "Singing and music have the power to bring the worshippers to a spiritual high." Credit: Yadin Goldman

So you’re Azi the settler who became a Conservative Jew?

“I describe myself as Azi who works in a synagogue that is officially called Conservative, but in fact is a synagogue that’s more eclectic and open in its approach. At home I don’t have any clear-cut definition. We’re closer to open and egalitarian Orthodoxy.”

Who are the Conservatives?

“The Conservatives are actually a middle-of-the-road movement of traditionalists, centering around the congregation. Incidentally, a huge group in Israel is actually traditional-Conservative, but for political and organizational reasons doesn’t formally belong to our denomination. It developed in the early and mid-20th century as a rejection of the ‘extremism’ of Reform Judaism. Some people predict that in the end it will disappear – parts of it will merge with the Reform movement and parts with the Modern Orthodox. Underlying this group's outlook is a belief in halakha [Jewish religious law] and in tradition, but with an understanding that the halakha changes and develops over time, and adapts itself to the needs of the congregation and to bringing it closer to Judaism.”

American Jewry is in crisis. What’s your take on that?

“The question of Jewish identity in the United States has been on the table for many years, and is far more central than in Israel. America is good for the Jews. Very good. The vast majority of Jews has become integrated into society and benefit from the American melting pot and from the separation of religion and state.

“On the other hand, integration into society leads to assimilation and sometimes to a clash between traditional Jewish values and contemporary American values. Many Jews are trying to do everything possible so that their children will marry only Jews, but that’s not realistic, especially for those living a modern lifestyle.

"My partner at the synagogue, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, says that we can’t control who our children will fall in love with when they sit together in college. “As time passes, opinion polls indicate higher percentages of assimilation, on the one hand, and a loss of interest in Jewish culture, Jewish identity and membership in a Jewish community, on the other. There’s a reason why many people in Israel simply ignore U.S. Jews, in the belief that a few years from now they’ll all assimilate and disappear.

“On the other hand, and equally important, it’s a shame that the State of Israel doesn’t always understand the situation. Crisis creates opportunity. Judaism developed and continues to develop and renew itself in the wake of crises. Historically, Judaism actually reinvented itself outside of Israel, and in the wake of crisis. And that’s what I believe is happening here. Will Judaism look the same 50 years from now? Of course not. Will it disappear? I believe it won’t. It will reinvent itself. Meanwhile, I know many 'mixed' families in our congregation who have decided to raise the children Jewishly, and we give them a warm embrace for doing so.”

All in all, the connection between Israel and American Jewry has eroded.

“That subject preoccupies us a great deal and really upsets us. Israeli and American Jews have less and less in common as time passes. The post-Holocaust sense of a shared fate is gradually disappearing. I have a recording in the synagogue archive of the 1973 Yom Kippur prayers. Within a few hours after the war broke out, the congregation raised huge sums of money to support Israel. Doctors from the congregation volunteered to fly to Israel. Political activists were mobilized. The entire congregation prayed for the welfare of the State of Israel.

“And what happened during the recent Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip [last May], when Israeli citizens were under missile attacks? I’m ashamed to tell you, but it left most of the Jews here unmoved. Many even harshly criticized Israel’s policy that they see as bringing destruction on itself and its neighbors.”

How did that happen?

“Part of it is a direct result of a failed policy. It’s amazing that [former Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, of all people, who was very familiar with the Jewish world in the United States, led to a deterioration in the relationship and caused irreversible damage. It’s true that he was a personal friend of [former U.S. President Donald] Trump and encouraged him to engage in ostentatious displays of support for Israel, but at the same time he was simply erasing American Jewry.

“Moreover, Netanyahu chose cooperation with the Haredim. In Jewish-religious terms, there’s a clash of values between U.S. Jewry and Israeli Jewry. In the United States there’s separation of religion and state; to Jews here it’s hard to understand how that works in Israel. As far as they’re concerned, official Israel is controlled by Haredim who don’t even recognize them as Jews.

“Do you understand the absurdity? Jews, members of a congregation who attend synagogue every Shabbat and sometimes every day, who are proud of their Judaism – they hear from the Israeli government that officially they aren’t Jews at all, that their conversions don’t count, that their prayers are not kosher, that they have no place to pray at the Western Wall, and that the State of Israel doesn’t care about them. So you tell me: Why should they care about Israel? Israel’s new president [Isaac] Herzog and Foreign Minister [Yair] Lapid are well aware of this.”

You’re a motorcycle enthusiast. That’s not exactly usual for cantors.

"As a kid I loved to ride a bike in the hills surrounding Alon Shvut. I got to know New York on a bike. In recent years I realized that I work too hard, so I reached the conclusion that I need a hobby that will force me to interrupt my routine – and to leave the city too. When I ride I like going out to the Catskill Mountains, or to the open spaces of New Jersey and Connecticut; the wind on my face; the sense of freedom; getting to know the roads; and yes, the adrenaline that’s released during extreme sports. It’s dangerous but I’m careful.”

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