By Ronni Diamondstein
It’s always been about music for Dana Anesi, Senior Cantor of Chappaqua’s Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. From growing up on the 1960’s folk music of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary and the contemporary tunes she heard at Jewish summer camp to the Israeli songs, Anesi developed a deep connection to Judaism and Israel through music. On any given Friday evening you can hear her, guitar in hand, in full mezzo soprano voice leading the congregation in melodic song and prayer. Anesi came to Temple Beth El in 1982 as a part-time Cantor excited about the prospect of working with the renowned Rabbi Chaim Stern. She has now spent more than three decades nurturing this Jewish community and incorporating lots of music into the services and the life of the synagogue–from directing the High Holiday choir, bringing in well-known Jewish musical performers like Danny Maseng to her weekly mellifluous Shabbat melodies.
In addition to singing, Anesi’s greatest joy is working with the children who are studying to become bat/bar mitzvah. “There are many negative stereotypes out there about 6th and 7th graders but these kids are just great,” says Anesi. “I am in awe of what they’re able to accomplish both for the momentous rite of passage with us, and in their lives in general.” Anesi can relate to how many of the students feel too. “I was a very reluctant Hebrew School student, and ironically had to have my arm twisted to become a bat mitzvah.” Anesi says that her very open-minded rabbi allowed her to put together and lead a “creative service” so she consented.” That experience in 1970 was fairly revolutionary,” says Anesi. She played her guitar and sang in public for the very first time.
“We clergy have the extraordinary privilege of regularly being invited into people’s private lives: for joyous events like weddings and b’nei mitvah, but often too at extremely difficult moments like the death of a family member,” says Anesi. Her devotion to the Jewish community and her students motivated Anesi to further her Jewish education. In 2010 Anesi was awarded a Doctor of Ministry degree from Hebrew Union College. It is no surprise that her thesis project was “Deepening the Experience: the Potential for Spiritual, Moral & Psychological Growth of B’nei Mitzvah.” Continuing to be the consummate mentor, in July, Anesi took on a very part-time position, on her day off from the temple, to become Director of Student Placement for the cantorial students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.
At the end of this June, Anesi will leave her position as Temple Beth El’s Senior Cantor. Rabbi Joshua Davidson says that Anesi’s contributions to the temple cannot be quantified in the extraordinary number of students she has tutored, couples she has married or troubled souls she has comforted. “For our congregation, she has been a loving and inspiring presence to young and old and everyone in between,” says Davidson. “And for me she has been a wonderful colleague, teacher and friend.”
Like her own very inventive Bat Mitzvah, Dana Anesi’s legacy will reflect the innovation she has brought in her tenure at Temple Beth El. When she came to the temple they’d had only student cantors and didn’t know what having a full-time cantor could mean for the congregation. “I believe they now understand how much a cantor brings, not only to the singing of liturgy but to the breadth of synagogue life, ” says Anesi. Clearly she has strengthened a connection to Judaism for the congregants and enriched the lives of so many.
Anesi is not quite sure yet what she’ll be doing professionally, but spending time with her family is pretty high on the list. “We clergy miss an awful lot in our personal lives, because we often work long hours, including weekends, tending to congregational needs,” says Anesi and she adds “I’m going to be a grandmother in the spring, and I look forward to being a real presence in my grandchild’s life!”
Ronni Diamondstein, owner of Maggie Mae Pup Reporter is a Chappaqua based freelance writer, PR consultant, award-winning photographer and a School Library Media Specialist and teacher who has worked in the US and abroad.