By day, Ethan Warhaftig is a freshman at Hingham High School who enjoys tennis and “Harry Potter.” But Warhaftig is also a gifted singer, guitar player and pianist who leads classes at his synagogue, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom, and at his New Hampshire summer camp, Tel Noar.
Jewish Rock Radio, devoted to spotlighting contemporary, fun Jewish music for young (and older!) listeners, chose him for Season 5 of Jewish Star, a national leadership initiative that identifies musically talented Jewish teenagers and college students, introducing them to a wider audience through mentorship, performance and lots more. (Check out some of their clips here—sound on, please!)
Thanks to the award, Warhaftig gets professional AV equipment, leadership training, networking and mentorship. Next month, he travels to St. Louis, Missouri, for a Songleader Boot Camp national conference to meet his peers with longtime Jewish musicians and educators. I talked to him about his musical inspirations and aspirations (and, OK, appreciation for ’80s music).
I’m so glad to interview you. I’m especially excited because I used to edit a website called Jews Rock—an online rock-and-roll hall of fame exclusively for Jewish musicians. So I’m always very interested in musically talented Jewish people.
That’s super cool.
But let’s talk about you: What’s your musical background? Why do you love music so much?
I’m a freshman at Hingham High School. I go to summer camp at Tel Noar in southern New Hampshire, which is really where I was exposed to a lot of the Judaism that has made this opportunity so relevant for me.
My family’s very musical. My sister’s a soloist; she’s a singer and very talented. I started playing piano when I was four or five, and someone gave me a guitar at eight or nine. I just loved it. I love being able to sing with it. It was maybe two or three years ago when I really made the connection between my musicality and my Judaism—I love being able to express myself that way. It helps me to feel part of that community.
Is your music upbeat? Jazzy? Serious?
When I’m leading a group of people, I try to keep the music very upbeat and active. I feel that, when someone is learning something about Judaism, learning through music is the most effective way to do that, a lot of the time. If it’s music where that person is always very engaged, it makes their learning experience a lot more fun and a lot more unique.
Is Jewish education your musical mission?
That’s just part of it! I’m the music teacher at my synagogue for preschool through third grade. I’m there every Sunday, doing fun songs for the kids. Sometimes it relates to Hebrew or to Judaism, or to whatever holiday is around that time of year. I love seeing the way that it makes them feel, the way they smile. And parents always tell me that it’s their kid’s favorite part, which is a great feeling.
That’s awesome! Let’s talk a little bit about the Jewish Star award, which is pretty amazing. What happened?
At my summer camp, one of the leaders of the [Jewish Star] program was invited to lead Shabbat. I played guitar with him a little bit. At the end of the summer, he emailed my parents, and he said, “I have an opportunity that I think Ethan would be perfect for.” I made an audition video where I played a piece of music, and I was accepted to the program.
I’ve now had meetings with some of the top Jewish artists in the country. I’ve learned an incredible amount from all of them. I’ve met some really cool people. And I’ll go to a song leader bootcamp national conference next month, in St. Louis, which is a once-a-year program where Jewish musicians, kids and adults, and many professional Jewish musicians from across the country, come together. I’ll have the ability to meet a lot of other people like me who have the same interests, the same hobbies, and who love to lead Jewish music.
What’s the connection between Judaism, music and creativity, in your opinion?
Music is like a story. When you listen to music, your brain paints a picture of what you’re hearing, which draws out emotions. And normally, that emotion can allow you to connect more to the Judaism that you’re being a part of. This applies to secular, non-Jewish music as well. But I think music is a really great way of communicating emotions.
Gotta ask: What are your short- and long-term plans?
This summer, I’ll still be a camper, but they’ve let me take a leadership role in Shabbat songs. At my synagogue, I’ve filled in as a cantor for a service before, and they’ve asked me to do that again. Other than that, I’m not sure yet!
Who are your favorite musicians?
It depends on the mood that I’m in. I like Billy Joel and ‘80s music, but then I also like listening to someone like Ed Sheeran, which is much more modern. I always get a lot of inspiration from modern Jewish musicians who are writing a lot of very awesome music right now, like Rick Recht.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Ooh, that’s a good one. A couple months ago, I went to a synagogue where I met Rick Recht, who is the executive director of Jewish Rock Radio. He’s so awesome. He had a little Hanukkah concert, and it really opened me up to the amount that you can do with Jewish music. It’s not just for a synagogue setting.
What do you do when you’re not performing?
I play tennis three or four times a week. I’m a cross-country runner. I try to spend a lot of time outdoors. And I love reading—especially the “Harry Potter” series.