How Plano's Anshai Torah Synagogue Got its Mens A Capella Choir
Dallas is home to one of the richest religious music scenes in the country. Over the summer, we'll be attending services, both big and small, of many denominations, as well talking to musicians , directors and pastors.
Plano's only conservative synagogue, Congregation Anshai Torah (located at 5501 West Parker Road) is home to Kol Rina, an all men's a capella singing group. Kol Rina, which means "voice of song" in Hebrew, sings mostly prayers, various blessings and psalms, which are almost exclusively in Hebrew.
Bruce Katz, the director of Kol Rina, notes, "Our role is to help the flow along and bring the spirit, the Hebrew word is ruach, to the service."
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In honor of the Sabbath (which begins Friday night at sundown and continues through Saturday at sundown), Anshai Torah upholds certain prohibitions on work, such as using computers, writing or taking pictures (which is why no pictures of the service are included here). The strictly a capella music is itself another result of the Sabbath, as the rabbi considers playing musical instruments as work.
The synagogue's seats are arranged in a horseshoe around a podium in the middle, and Kol Rina sing from the front, to the right of the stage. With light shining through the stained glass behind it, the Torah ark -- a beautiful and cabinet-like receptacle for the Torah scrolls -- was situated at the front of the room on a raised platform. High above the Torah ark was a replica of the Tablets of Stone, the two stones that Moses inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The house of worship also had a balcony with about three hundred extra seats.
About 475 families are members of Anshai Torah, with an average of about 150 people attending the typical Saturday morning service. However, attendance increases for bar mitzvahs and on holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur attendance can reach over a thousand people.
While many synagogues have a professionally trained cantor to lead the music, Rabbi Stefan Weinberg acted as Anshai Torah's de factor cantor until about eight years ago, when Kol Rina was created. After an impressive all men's a capella group came and performed at a bar mitzvah, Rabbi Weinberg decided to form what would become Kol Rina, knowing that the congregation had its fair share of talented vocalists.
Originally they sang only about once a month, but Kol Rina now essentially acts as the synagogue's cantor for almost every Shabbat service. On any given Sabbath, around seven to ten of the group's almost twenty total members lead the service's singing. Some of the members perform every single week, others sing about three times a month, and a few only sing about once every four to six weeks. The volunteers spend an approximate total of five or six hours a week rehearsing and performing.
Anshai Torah's Kol Rina
Courtesy of Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz, who works as a mortgage lender for a living, joined Anshai Torah about fourteen years ago, largely because their kids had a lot of friends in the congregation. He and his wife have been very involved with the synagogue; both have served on the board and his wife is even a former president of the synagogue.
While Katz has been a part of Kol Rina since it started, he took over as its director only about two or three years ago. He's always enjoyed music; he played piano as a kid, has always enjoyed singing and even now plays guitar, which he didn't start learning until about twelve years ago, when he was 42 years old. Like Katz, the rest of Kol Rina consists of laymen who have separate full time jobs. Still, the group has a wide variety of talent, including a few guitar players, a drummer, a song-writer/keyboardist and a couple former high school band members.
Katz really appreciates the dedication of the group: "We have not had a single member of our singing group leave for any reason other than relocation, which, I think, says a lot about the passion of the guys in the group. They do it because they really enjoy the ruach, the spirit of doing this."
While most synagogues do have music, Anshai Torah, which means "people of the Torah" in Hebrew, is highly unusual by having an a capella group instead of a cantor, although some cantors do work with a capella groups.
Despite mostly performing a capella, Kol Rina has performed with full bands at various events on non-Sabbath days. For example, the group has performed at holiday celebrations, weddings and fundraising events, performed alongside gospel choirs and even sang the national anthem before a Texas Legends' game (The Legends are Frisco's D-League basketball team).
But despite their success outside of the synagogue, they don't forget their most important purpose. Katz explains, "The Rabbi really likes us to sort of think of ourselves as leaders and educators for the rest of the congregation more than performers."
Before every service, Rabbi Stefan Weinberg tells them, "Remember, Kol Rina is here to lead us, not to perform for us."
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