Shir Levav is an organization devoted to singing from the heart. Shir Levav creates intergenerational connections through the arts. Young adults bring joy to those young at heart, particularly Holocaust survivors, by singing, cooking, and other projects in person or on Zoom. We are expanding throughout NYC and the tristate area.
Written by Bethany Friedman
Three years ago, I met Auschwitz survivor Hannah Steiner as an incoming freshman at Wagner College. Hannah is brave, smart, personable, and beautiful. Even in Auschwitz, Hannah kept her spirits up by sharing recipes with those around her. In a course which paired Holocaust Studies and Acting, I had the privilege to pick a monologue from Hannah to perform for my classmates, and with guidance from Professors Theresa McCarthy and Lori Weintrob. I was ecstatic when I found out that I would be reading her monologues in an original play, Rise Up: Young Holocaust Heroes. It was an honor to recall her hope and tragedies in her own words. She is the most extraordinary woman that I have ever had the pleasure of learning about. I will never forget the day I met her and got to talk with her. I found out about how proud she was of her children and grandchildren, how much she loved elephants, I got to see all of her family pictures. We talked to each other for hours and she looked so happy.
After my experience interacting with Hannah, I wanted to continue to see her because I truly cared for her. This is when I started to think about the other survivors my class studied or met. I wondered what these special people did throughout the day. I then formulated the idea of an organization where students of Wagner College could use the arts to make Holocaust Survivors and others of that generation smile. Shir Levav means Sing from the Heart in Hebrew. With support from the Wagner College Holocaust Center and Chai Society, we took action. We sang and connected with survivors starting in 2019 and in 2020, even in quarantine.
For the 100th birthday of survivor Alex Steinberg, we did our first virtual meet-up, joined by students from the Jewish Foundation School of Staten Island. Ruth Kupperberg (Theater Major and Hillel President) and I sang a Fiddler on the Roof medley together and it went wonderfully. Then, we launched a partnership with Eger Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Staten Island to sing weekly. We also partnered with the Met Council, an organization that serves Holocaust survivors around New York City. We sang to Egon Salmon on his 96th birthday in June 2020, 71 years exactly after he was on the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis. We also sang to Margot Capell, who we had serenaded face to face before COVID began. Each week, singing with Andrew Kolar, Miles Wilke, and David Leon reminds me of how great the Wagner community is. All of us involved pick a few of our favorite tunes to sing (usually from the 50’s, 60’s, and/or Broadway). “Songs and artists I grew up listening to, such as the Beatles or Frank Sinatra, are highly popular with their generation” - Andrew Kolar, Wagner College Class of 2022. This experience has been so pleasurable throughout the pandemic because everyone has been isolated and our zoom performances are a way of bringing everyone together.
The other day someone told us that we made his day, which is why I started Shir Levav. “Shir Levav was always such a healing experience for me every week, as I could relate to their feelings of isolation especially right now.” - Miles Wilke, Wagner College Class of 2021. When I see the faces of the residents, it makes me feel happy and I remember that we are not alone. Often residents will pretend to conduct an orchestra, play piano on the table, clap along to the beat, and sing with us. David Leon comments, “Singing for Shir Levav has been an absolute joy and one of the highlights of my summer.” - David Leon, Wagner College Class of 2021. The intergenerational connections that we have fostered as a are something that we will cherish forever. As Margot Capell commented after I sang her favorite Judy Garland song, “Thank you for the rainbow”.
I would like to sincerely thank Stephanie Berman (Recreational Director of Eger Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center of Staten Island), Alana Mantel and Leah Schechter (Met Council), and Marc Lebovitz (‘91, Trustee of Wagner College and President of Romark Logistics) for giving us the opportunity to perform our arts program for Holocaust Survivors and seniors of New York. I look forward to continuing our program in the future.
Bethany Friedman is a senior Philosophy major at Wagner College, planning a law career. She has been an intern at the Wagner College Holocaust Center for three years. She is from Manalapan, New Jersey.