Local cantors compete to become first ‘Semitic Idol’

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Cantors from around the metro competed to become Minneapolis’ first “Semitic Idol” as a part of a fundraiser for Hillel Student Cultural Center. Cantors are professional singers who lead prayer services.

This is the first time Hillel has tried to reach a broader audience outside of the Jewish community with an “American Idol” knockoff, said Sarah Routman, executive director of Hillel.

The event raised about $6,500, Routman said.

“We wanted to try something new and different and we wanted to appeal to the broader community,” Routman said.

After the crowd of about 100 conversed, drank wine and ate chocolate cake, the competition started.

The first round was called Heymish, and had to be a Jewish song; the second round was Famish, a song of the cantor’s choice; and the third round was You-name-ish, a song that was picked for a cantor by the highest bidder.

Cantor Neil Newman of the Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park sang the Israeli folk song “Al Tira” and “My Way” by Paul Anka.

“I think (‘Semitic Idol’) is a great way for Hillel to get support,” Newman said.

He jokingly told the judges he deserved to win because he was the oldest cantor. He has served as a cantor at Beth El for 26 years, and he drove the farthest to come to “Semitic Idol,” he said.

Cantors from Talmud Torah in Minneapolis, Shir Tikbah Congregation in Minneapolis and Temple of Aaron in St. Paul also competed.

M.J. Gilbert, a sociology professor who impersonated Abdul, said she thought every performance was wonderful and waved her arms in adulation when moved by the music.

Jonathan Gewirtz, a psychology professor who played Cowell, insulted the cantors’ singing, imitating Cowell’s British accent.

“I like my music short and sweet but not my cantors,” Gewirtz told one competitor.

Evan Stern, a senior film major and a former president of the Hillel student board, played the role of Ryan Seacrest.

He said this event featured some of the highest-profile Jewish singers from the state of Minnesota, besides Bob Dylan.

Routman said this fundraiser is telling of the direction in which Hillel is headed.

“There is a whole segment of the Jewish population involved with the arts and it’s largely untapped,” Routman said.

The event was the brainchild of Alex Lubet, head of Hillel’s fundraising committee and a professor of music, Routman said.

“Semitic Idol” will be key in raising money for general opperations of Hillel, but also for some of the new goals the organization has for next year, she said.

Those include making Hillel more welcoming by renovating the building and making it handicap accessible, said Lauren Palay, a child psychology sophomore and the incoming president of the student board at Hillel.

“We’re in the process of making the building more user-friendly,” Palay said.

Hillel plans to combine the adult and student boards of organization in August.