Tenth anniversary St. Louis interfaith concert will continue building bridges


‘An Interfaith Memorial in Music’ held at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011. The event consisted of  sacred songs from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu faiths.

Eric Berger, Associate Editor

When Opera Theater of St. Louis in 2011 staged “The Death of Klinghoffer,” a controversial piece that some alleged legitimized terrorism against Jews, it sparked an interfaith concert effort that continues a decade later.

“We were all getting to know new people and having wonderful discussions, and we decided that perhaps this concert should be an annual event,” said Paul Reuter, who was then the executive director of the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries, which hosted the first concert.

Reuter, who has retired from the Sheldon, is executive director of Arts & Faith St. Louis, which is preparing to stream a 10th anniversary Interfaith Concert on Sunday, Sept. 12, at 4 p.m., on HEC-TV and the Arts & Faith YouTube channel and website, among other channels. Visit  https://interfaithstl.org/calendar/2021-arts-and-faith-concert/ for more information.

The concert is virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is just one reason why there appears to be such polarization within the United States.

Reuter hopes that this year’s concert again helps bring people together.

“The goal is to build a harmonious St. Louis, to use the arts to bring the faith community and the wider community together, to bridge divides,” he said.

The opera that sparked the first concert tells the story of Palestinian terrorists who boarded an Italian ship and shot a Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer, as he sat in his wheelchair, and then threw his body overboard. Klinghoffer’s daughters and the Anti-Defamation League objected to the opera because by linking the plight of Palestinians with the murder of Klinghoffer, it rationalized it, they said.

But Opera Theatre of St. Louis went ahead with its plan. The theater company also joined with the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis and other religious groups to organize a series of interfaith discussions, which then led to a new initiative, Arts & Faith St. Louis, which commemorated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with an interfaith concert at the Sheldon.

At the inaugural event, former U.S. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., spoke, and renowned soprano Christine Brewer, among others, performed before a full house. Brewer has returned each year, along with choirs and musicians from various backgrounds.

Rabbi Howard Kaplansky of United Hebrew Congregation, who was involved in planning the event until the pandemic and delivered the benediction at six concerts, said: “Often, I had tears when I was watching the entertainers, not only because there were children’s choirs and presenters, but tears to see that people can come together in common cause, celebrating each other.”

This year’s virtual concert will feature new performances by Brewer and an interfaith youth chorus of high school singers. The hourlong show also will include selections from previous interfaith concerts, including Rob Aronson, a local Jewish musician and song leader at Congregation Temple Israel, performing “Gesher (The Bridge).”

Rob Aronson plays guitar and sings at the Arts & Faith St. Louis interfaith concert in 2019 at The Sheldon Concert Hall. Photo: Philip Deitch

The song features a Hebrew refrain that translates to, “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is to have no fear at all.”

It’s about “having G-d look out for you and finding the strength within yourself to stand up for yourself for what’s right,” said Aronson, who has twice performed at the concert.

He sees Arts & Faith as an important organization because it brings people of different faiths, ethnicities and beliefs together, which is “what we need more of today especially. People are not listening to one another. They are not comingling with others who are different from themselves.”

Even though people won’t be able to comingle at the Sheldon this year, Reuter said he hopes the concert still inspires viewers “to break down barriers and find common ground with people who may appear different than them, from other parts of St. Louis, from different faiths, from different races, from different parts of the world.”