UPDATED: Jan. 29, 2019 at 2:51 p.m.
How to celebrate a cantor’s 20th anniversary with a congregation? With a season of music. Agudas Achim Congregation, in Alexandria, is getting ready to hold a season of musical programs in honor of Hazzan Elisheva Dienstfrey, culminating with a concert and gala in May.
Before then, there will be guest cantors at Shabbat services, children’s entertainers and themed performances, Dienstfrey said.
“We’re having a children’s concert to make sure that families with young children have a musical outlet that’s special just for them,” she said of an upcoming visit from Ellen Allard, a Jewish children’s entertainer.
The Sisterhood Ensemble will perform at Shabbat morning services on Jan. 18. On Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, Feb. 7-8, Cantor Elana Rozenfeld, artist-in-residence of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, Mass., will be the guest cantor.
“Many cantors, including myself, make sure to make music a little more prevalent during that Shabbat, whether it’s inviting a guest to do new melodies” or giving a sermon related to music, said Dienstfrey, 46.
The Torah portion read on Shabbat Shirah includes the Song of the Sea that the Israelites sang after crossing the Red Sea safely.
Dienstfrey said she is particularly excited to have cantors Matt Austerklein and Arielle Green performing. Both grew up at Agudas Achim.
“It’s really cool to say I’ve known all these people since they were kids, so it’s neat to have them now performing,” she said.
Music is a big part of the culture at the Conservative congregation, said Dienstfrey, who is a member of Agudas Achim’s in-house Saturday night band, Ein Lanu Z’man. The religious school starts every Sunday with music, and the Sisterhood ensemble performs regularly.
“So [my anniversary] was a way to say, ‘Let’s not only do all these ongoing programs but have little special events that remind us of all of those different ways we can have music make this part of our lives even more special,’” Dienstfrey said.
The band holds a special place in her heart because of the comradery and love of music the members share. In 2008, an intern named Melissa Berman, who is now a cantor, put together a concert that gathered musicians to become a band. Ein Lanu Z’man was formed out of that experience.
“I have found over the years that my rehearsals with Ein Lanu Z’man are as spiritual, if not more so at times, than prayer,” Dienstfrey said, adding, “Music is an essential part of being Jewish, of Jewish culture.”
She is launching a series called Hazzan Salon — small gatherings in people’s homes where Dienstfrey will present a program of Jewish music.
“[It’s] really to encourage relationship building. But this is through music as opposed to teaching,” she said.
In addition to celebrating Dienstfrey’s 20 years at the congregation, the May concert, featuring Cantor Azi Schwartz of New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, will honor David Sattler, a former president who died in 2017.
Twenty years on, Dienstfrey said she hopes Agudas Achim is her “forever pulpit.”
“I feel really blessed that I found a family in Agudas Achim,” she said. “I’ve grown my own family and had all four of my children here. Everyone at Agudas is really family.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correctly spell Elisheva Dienstfrey’s last name.