By Rudy Malcom
Aaron Tessler is a cantor’s son and something of a cantor himself, having led high holiday services for various congregations since he was a teenager. A native of Norfolk, Va., Tessler, 29, is a human capital strategist for Nestlé and first vice president of Kesher Israel, in Georgetown.
What was it like being the son of the cantor?
Having a parent in the public eye, you have a front-row seat to a lot of the goings-on of the community, and you get a strong sense of what it means to be a leader. On the other hand, sometimes you can’t do things like a normal kid. My parents would tell me, “You can’t just run around and be a monster in the synagogue because it reflects poorly on your dad and his position.” But by and large, growing up in that environment really influenced who I am today as a leader, person and member of a Jewish community.
Tell me about the Megillah reading you started.
The first year that I moved here, a couple of friends and I thought it’d be great if we had a Megillah reading geared toward young professionals. The synagogue [Kesher Israel] told us at the time that they weren’t interested in facilitating such a thing, so we ended up hosting it in someone’s very large apartment.
By the third year, so many people were showing up that the synagogue said, “You know what? Why don’t we do it in the building next door?” After a couple more years, there were people spilling out the front door onto 28th Street. At this point, I was on the board, so we spent some money to rent the Westin. Right before COVID-19, we rented their largest ballroom. It was packed to the brim with 200-plus people across various denominations from all over D.C.
How does your passion for music intersect with your Judaism?
Music has the ability to bring people together in a way that bridges some of the differences we have between denominations and ideologies. When I was in college, I was involved in the Orthodox minyan at Hillel. One of the ideas I had along with the Reform community was to sing songs together after our separate services. At first we had to negotiate some of the terms — “no, we’re not comfortable with the guitar,” “yes, we can have women singing” — but we found that we knew a lot of the same tunes, and we were interested in learning ones we didn’t. It was a positive experience that is difficult to achieve through text study or sermons alone.
Who are two Jews, living or dead, whom you’d like to meet?
Number one would be my great-grandfather, who was the official Torah reader for the rebbe in his town in northern Romania, where my father was born.
Totally switching gears, my number two would be Ben Platt. He’s one of the voices of our generation, and I’d absolutely love to meet and sing with him.
What’s a fun fact about you?
I spent seven semesters learning Yiddish at Johns Hopkins, largely to be able to talk to my grandmother of blessed memory. When she was getting older, she started to remember songs from her childhood during the 1920s and ‘30s, and I would sit in her kitchen in a suburb of Tel Aviv and record them on my iPhone. I did a lot of research and spoke to some Yiddish linguists and ethnomusicologists to see if there was any record of one song in particular, “In the Wild Forest.” There wasn’t, so I raised funds to remaster the song with some very esteemed personalities in the Jewish music world.
Most of the people who would’ve heard the song died in the gas chambers or would’ve forgotten it entirely, so I felt an immense sense of pride that I was able to bring the song back from near extinction. It has a timeless message that the Jewish people are experiencing persecution, but we need to stick together and follow the right path out of the woods.
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