Female cantor sings anthems at Toronto Raptors game

When not leading the Raptors to a miraculous comeback, Aviva Rajsky leads the singing at Congregation Habonim.

A Toronto hazzanit likely hit “11” on the cool mom-meter when she sang before a crowd of nearly 20,000, which included her three children, at a Toronto Raptors game.

As a cantor, Aviva Rajsky sings before much smaller crowds, a few hundred perhaps, but when she was tagged to sing the national anthems at the game at the Scotia Bank Arena in Toronto on Dec. 22, well that elevated her into the realm of, “your mom did that?”

Adding to her auspicious performance was the fact that it was also the first night of Hanukkah and the Raptors staged a somewhat miraculous comeback overcoming a 30-point deficit to defeat the Dallas Mavericks, 110-107. It was the greatest comeback in franchise history, or as people like to say around that time of year, “nes gadol hayah sham.”

Rajsky doesn’t like to brag, but the Raptors’ comeback prompted many calls, texts and emails from friends and family who noticed the coincidence: that after the anthems were performed by a Jewish singer, a cantor no less, on Hanukkah, a miracle of sorts did take place.

Rajsky is happy to take credit – for likely being the first female cantor to perform the national anthems at a Raptors game, not necessarily for summoning divine intervention to help the local basketball team.

Still, it’s something she hopes the Raptors take notice of.

In the meantime, Rajsky continues to make music. About 20 or 30 times a year, she is chazzanit at Congregation Habonim, a fast-growing synagogue that hosts High Holiday services as well as Shabbat services about 25 to 30 times a year.

Rajsky is also in the middle of cutting a jazz album with collaborator Tom Bellman, who also accompanies her on guitar at Habonim. The album is based on original material written by Bellman, with lyrics by Barbie Nichol.

It’s a sophisticated brand of music, hearkening back to the kind of standards once made popular by Ella Fitzgerald –  classy and accessible, Rajsky said.

Rajsky can also belt out a country tune, and while she and Bellman jazz up traditional songs for synagogue, there’s no crossover where you’d find hymns to fast cars, booze and roadside bars in any of them.

For as long as she can remember, Rajsky has had music in her blood. Singing zemirot (Sabbath hymns) was a regular event for her family, and her mother used to joke that if you opened her up, you’d find music inside, Rajsky quipped.

It all stood her in good stead as she embarked on a career in music. At one time, Rajsky made a pretty good living as a piano bar singer. Her piano bar career, which included stints in Switzerland and Israel, was followed by one in which she began officiating and singing at bar and bat mitzvahs, as well as weddings.

She also put together a female jazz quartet, the Jazzabelles and has sung at many high profile events, including the funeral for Barry and Honey Sherman, the Wiesenthal Spirit of Hope event and the International March of the Living in Birkenau on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Eli Rubenstein, spiritual leader at Habonim, said the shul “has over 150 families on its waiting list, largely because of Aviva’s singing.”

“Aviva is, bar none, one of the most gifted individuals I have ever met. Her musical ability is extraordinary. Aviva also plays piano, composes music, conducts our choir and arranges all the harmonies.

“Service after service, her soul stirring voice deeply touches her audience in a way I have rarely seen in another singer.”

In 2006, Rajsky was asked to help her friend, Lisa Kent, during the High Holidays at the Danforth Jewish Circle.

“That’s when I got hooked on leading services,” she said.

But it was her song styling at a bar mitzvah that prompted one of the guests to suggest she contact Rubenstein about an opening there as an associate cantor under Esther Ghan Firestone, the first female cantor in Canada.

Her “audition” consisted of singing during the second day of Rosh Hashanah, around 10 years ago.

“I opened my mouth and I channeled Cantor Harold Klein,” she said, referring to the hazzan at the Shaarei Shomayim, her family’s shul.

“After that service, I felt changed. I felt like Moses coming down from the mountain, visibly different,” she said.

As it turns out, one of the members at Habonim is Judy Tanenbaum, wife of Larry Tanenbaum, who is part owner of the Raptors. She suggested Rajsky record a demo singing the national anthems and submit it to the team. She did so and quickly received a response: “Are you available to sing on Dec. 22, which at the time was only two weeks away?”

Yes of course, she replied, bringing along her children, aged 21, 20 and 18.

Until now, singing the anthems has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but given the game’s outcome and her apparent ability to summon divine intervention, Rajsky is available for future Raptors games.

Not to mention, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs.