After 15 years leading the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Community Choir, Dr. Jonathan Dzik laid down his baton after leading the final performance of the choir on May 24, at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale—where it all began. A member of the HIR for over 50 years, where he supported its move to relocate from University Avenue in the Bronx to the Henry Hudson Parkway in Riverdale where it now has over 800 families, Dr. Dzik’s last performance included 40 current choir members who sang 13 songs in four-part harmony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the reunification and Jubilee year of the holy city of Jerusalem. He is now ready to move onto a new chapter of his life, spending more time with his family, many of whom live in Israel.
Near the end of the final performance, the evening’s significant historical tone was set when a 50-year-old historical recording was played of the jubilant voices of Israeli soldiers announcing over their radio to their commanding officers that they had broken through the Jordanian defenses during the Six-Day War in 1967, saying, “We’re through! We got it!” followed by the recording of the joyous and solemn blasts of the shofar blown by then Chief Rabbi of the military forces Shlomo Goren at the Western Wall. This was the first time that Jews had been able to be present at their holiest site since the 1948 founding of the state of Israel.
The choir sang songs praising and extolling Jerusalem, including “We Came to Sing in Jerusalem,” Sol Zim’s “Avinu Shebashamayim” with a thrilling solo by soprano Sigal Chen, “Ose Shalom” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” by Naomi Shemer.
The hour-long program closed with Israel’s National Anthem, “Hatikvah,” where all choir members joined the attendees in unison.
The choir started in 2002 when Riverdale residents Lynn Cohen and Beverly Fettman approached Dr. Dzik and asked him to form a choir at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and to become the group’s director. Dr. Dzik agreed, provided that regular attendance at weekly rehearsals would lead to semi-annual performances for Chanukah and Yom Ha’atzmaut. In that first year, the HIR Community Choir consisted of 18 people united by a common interest in Jewish choral music. The choir’s final performance featured 40 members singing to “achieve beautiful performances while sharing the joy of contributing to a musical ensemble,” said Dr. Dzik. During its 15 years, many volunteers sang more than 140 songs in five languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Ladino and Italian, and attendees were provided with transliterations.
Now in its 15th season, the choir has numerous members divided among the soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections, and has performed at synagogues, senior residences, community centers, the annual Johnson Avenue Street Fair, the Riverdale YM-YWHA, Kittay House, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, NY City Hall, the Bronx Courthouse and Shea Stadium. It has also received the Riverdale Jewish Community Council’s Community Service Award.
Explaining the choir’s membership, Dr. Dzik explained, “Some people have asked how an Orthodox congregation can have a mixed choir of men and women. I tell them first of the all that the choir doesn’t participate in prayer services.” When Dr. Dzik was asked, “What is the make-up of the choir? Are they Orthodox, Conservative, Reform etc.?” he answered, “This is the make-up of the choir: We had (this semester) 11 sopranos, 11 altos, 8 tenors and 9 basses. We don’t ask which congregation they do or do not belong to. We are a community choir and we welcome everyone who would like to sing Jewish music in harmony.”
Dr. Dzik further explained that “Because we are the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Community Choir, the key word is ‘community.’ Although our headquarters and rehearsal venue is at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, we draw our membership from the entire community and beyond—Westchester, Manhattan [and] New Jersey.”
Dr. Dzik grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he attended the Chattanooga Hebrew Academy and received early music training in piano and flute. He attended Yeshiva University High School and remained for his undergraduate studies at New York University in University Heights. He received his master’s degree in musicology at Queens College and his doctorate in music education at New York University School of Education in Washington Square. His doctoral dissertation was a study on how to teach opera appreciation to high school students. In college, he played flute in the orchestra and was piano soloist with the NYU orchestra in Beethoven’s third piano concerto. He became a rehearsal pianist with the Bronx Opera Company in the mid-1960s.
Dr. Dzik worked at JHS 127 in Parkchester and Evander Childs High School. From 1974 to 2000 he taught music appreciation, chorus, music theory and musical theater at Christopher Columbus High School in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood, where he was awarded with “Music Teacher of the Year” twice by the New York Daily News. His choruses performed with various professional Bronx orchestras, and he was piano soloist with the Bronx Symphony Orchestra in 1997.
He has been music director for more than 50 productions performed at a variety of venues including high schools, camps and local establishments that include SAR and the Riverdale Y. From 1982 to 1983 he was music director of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and Damrosch Park. He has also written and edited film strips on opera and musical theater, and led workshops and seminars on music education and opera at venues such as the Metropolitan Opera House and led backstage tours there. He also teaches an opera course to retired teachers in Brooklyn and Queens, has authored over 100 opera study guides and provides piano accompaniment for vocal and instrumental soloists. He also sings bass in the Master Voices, which performed in Switzerland under Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine in 2005.
The choir’s year is divided into two seasons of weekly rehearsals. The Fall/Winter season begins in September and runs through December; the Winter/Spring session begins in late January or early February and runs through May, including nominal annual dues.
Each season culminates with three to four performances. The repertoire includes standard and novel arrangements of choral works that convey the spirit of the season and the theme of the concert.
The goal of the group is to achieve beautiful performances while sharing the joy of contributing to a musical ensemble. Meeting this goal requires regular attendance at rehearsals, thorough familiarity with the music, ongoing attention to the conductor during rehearsals and performances and courtesy to fellow members at all times.
Prospective members are subject to an evaluation by the choir director to determine the appropriate voice part and to ensure that the candidate is able to meet certain basic musical requirements, such as accurately replicating several notes and rhythms. Pianist Daphne Palka accompanies the choir, with guitarist Craig Robins and some soloists.
By Robert Kalfus