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Charlotte organist plays out his faith

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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  • Organ Concerts

    Monty Bennett performs at 7 p.m. Sunday, St. John’s Baptist Church, 300 Hawthorne Lane.

    More concerts:

  • Destination recital

    World tour via organ in 65 minutes.

    •  “Toccata” by Georgi Mushel: Russia doesn’t produce much organ music because the instrument – frequently constructed in churches – is not part of the Russian Orthodox service. This piece includes musical themes from Uzbekistan.

    •  “Variations and Fugue on Heil dir im Siegerkranz” by Max Reger: Listeners will recognize a familiar tune, identified as “My Country ’Tis of Thee” or “God Save the King,” depending on your national affiliation.

    •  “Chinese Boy and the Bamboo Flute” by James Spencer: On a trip to China in the 1920s, the composer heard a folk tune about a water lily played on a bamboo flute. The organ imitates the sparse setting with this palette cleanser.

    •  “Spiritual Suite” by Calvin Taylor: While these pieces are religious, they also demonstrate one of the few American musical forms. Listeners will recognize “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Down Moses.”

On Sunday evening, organist Monty Bennett will perform a recital featuring works from around the world, beginning in Canada and heading east with stops including Germany, Russia and China, ending in the United States.

The concert is one of 15 in the Charlotte chapter of the American Guild of Organists’ Summer Recital Series.

Like many musicians in this series, Bennett holds a church job – he’s the organist and choir director at Park Road Baptist. But what’s unusual is Bennett is Jewish.

He grew up Catholic in California, and after moving to the South in the early 1990s, he has provided music for several Charlotte congregations, including Calvary Church and Friendship Missionary Baptist. Nearly five years ago, Bennett took a job as choir director at Temple Israel.

He decided to convert in 2009.

“It was the fact that Judaism is very much focused on how we act out our faith,” Bennett said, “the daily deeds of helping each other, or things we do on earth. …We have to walk the line, and how we live our lives everyday really is a result of our belief. ”

The hardest thing about directing a choir in a synagogue? Learning Hebrew. The hardest thing about converting to Judaism? Learning to keep kosher. Bennett first stopped eating meat and dairy together, transitioned into two separate sets of dishes and cookware, and finally began buying kosher products. At this point, though, Bennett feels at home with Jewish traditions.

“I do miss singing some of the Christmas carols,” Bennett said, “but I get to play them and help other people sing them. It’s like when you go to a birthday party and help someone celebrate their birthday.”

As Park Road Baptist’s choir director, Bennett is considered a spiritual leader, but music functions differently in the synagogue than it does in the church.

“Music is designed to support the activity of prayer,” said Barry Bobrow, president of Temple Israel. “Monty is a wonderfully gifted musician whose talents make our services more beautiful. He does it well and that’s why we like him.”

Bennett served as interim organist at Park Road Baptist nearly a decade ago. When he applied for the choir director/organist job at Park Road, he made sure the co-pastors, Russ and Amy Jacks Dean, knew about his conversion.

“They laughed and said, ‘That’s OK!’ ”

Amy Jacks Dean said she felt comfortable with Bennett as choir director because of his musical talent, the church’s relationship with him and his experience with Christian worship.

She also felt like the opportunity to hire someone outside of the church’s faith helped edify the congregation in their mission.

“Our committee certainly discussed whether it would be a problem or issue,” she said, “but we felt like it completely helped us live out who we feel we are called to be as Park Road Baptist Church, a group of people that’s inclusive.”

Jacks Dean feels that her faith is benefitting, too.

“We feel like it enhances our worship to have him there,” she said. “Russ and I both, in our preaching and worship planning, have found that it’s a really good exercise to be sensitive to our sense of calling toward this interfaith work, having a Jewish person present in worship every single Sunday, you know, really heightens your attention to how you talk about your own faith and how you talk about interfaith work. I think this has really helped us practice what we preach. That we are Christian, we aren’t changing that, but how can you be Christian in a multicultural, interfaith kind of world – inclusive and not offensive, while claiming who you are.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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