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Pulling the Strings

Faigy Schonfeld

If you’re sitting in an audience with hundreds or thousands of frum Jews at a musical event to benefit a non-profit, you’re probably drinking in the logistical magic of Eli Gerstner — a popular composer who found a surprise career as producer of some of frum Jewry’s largest-scale shows

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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SHOW TIME When the lights dim and the music begins, Eli watches in satisfaction as hours of planning come together in yet another performance that will benefit the Jewish world. “In the end, it all boils down to a tremendous amount of siyata d’Shmaya. I never looked to become a producer, it just sort of happened. I’m a composer who somehow became a producer. And I keep learning”

If you’re sitting in an audience among hundreds of fellow frum Jews, waiting for the lights to dim and the curtain to rise, chances are good that Eli Gerstner is somewhere backstage. For close to two decades, Gerstner has been producing some of the Jewish world’s most celebrated and legendary performances, including the annual HASC concert, Rachel’s Place productions, and Chabad’s Lag B’omer Great Parade, to name a few. 

“I always loved music and composing. My goal was to spread my songs,” says Gerstner, 37, “so I started producing music for my different groups: The Chevra, Menucha, and the Yeshiva Boys Choir.” Without any conscious decision, that segued into the production end, as Gerstner saw his compositions through from their original development in his quiet living room until their colorful debuts on stage. Soon he became an address for other composers and groups as well, and he’s spent the last few years producing full-time for non-profits who stage massive shows or plays. Among a public looking for kosher entertainment options, these shows are the perfect way to spend an afternoon or evening — and benefit a non-profit organization bettering the lives of their fellow Jews. 

WHEN ELI TAKES ON A NEW PRODUCING JOB, his first priority is never the show itself. “At the first meeting with an organization, I need to get a feel for what they’re doing,” he says. “I can spend a full year planning these events, and to really pour everything I have into a show, it’s important for me to connect to the cause, to feel their mission.” 

Then he turns to the actual logistical work of staging the performance. Each job comes with its own confluence of challenges. “For each show, I’m dealing with hundreds of people, thousands of options, technical nightmares, last-minute emergencies. And then there are unique issues that crop up, depending on who’s performing. Take the Rachel’s Place performances, for example.” 

Rachel’s Place, the first and only state-certified residential program serving homeless girls in our communities, has been producing an annual play to fund their monumental work. “It’s amazing what goes on over there. There are approximately 250 women involved in this play, 100 of them working behind stage, and this is all completely volunteer work. Everything is very professional, directed entirely by frum women under the leadership of Mrs. Miriam Handler — the music, choirs, props, costumes. For halachic and hashkafic reasons, they insist on having female-only musicians. And they must be top-of-the-line, of course. But there aren’t that many female musicians of the caliber we’re looking for in all of New York, so I had to go around hunting, and one by one we found them: a drummer, bass player, the flute, the trumpet.” 

For men seeking similar high-level entertainment, Gerstner recently took on a new client. “This year, we did the Zusman play production, the first ever of its kind. There’s a call to raise the bar in entertainment, not just music, to provide an outlet for the frum community that’s kosher and professional. The Zusman performance, written and directed by Yitzchok Wagschal, was a very high-end affair. Each part of production had its own trained director; the action coordinator from Texas, the wardrobe guy from Manhattan.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Behind the Scenes, Pesach Mega-Issue 5777)

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