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Former Jewish neighbors to hold poignant reunion concert in West Oak Lane today

Musicians Marty Steinberg and Mitch Sturman are best friends from childhood. They're performing as a duo for the first time.

Cellist Marty Steinberg is organizing a reunion concert in West Oak Lane for his neighbors this weekend at Temple Beth'El.
Cellist Marty Steinberg is organizing a reunion concert in West Oak Lane for his neighbors this weekend at Temple Beth'El.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Growing up across the street from each other in West Oak Lane in the 1950s, Marty Steinberg and Mitch Sturman spent their days playing hide-and-seek and football together. But it was their mutual love of classical music that cemented their friendship. Steinberg, a cellist, and Sturman, a clarinetist, would take the train into the city early for Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, to be the first ones in line.

"We'd hang out outside the stage doors of the Academy of Music to get autographs of the musicians coming in," says Steinberg, 66, who now lives in South Orange, N.J.

Steinberg now teaches music out of his home. Sturman, now 68, attended the Curtis Institute of Music and has played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Singapore Symphony.

Their families moved away from the neighborhood during the 1960s. The former Jewish enclave is predominantly African American now. But the two men are returning to perform on Saturday evening as part of a neighborhood reunion concert at Temple Beth'El, a majority African American synagogue founded 50 years ago by the daughter of a Baptist preacher.

Steinberg and Sturman, who grew up performing in orchestras together in elementary and middle school, have never played together as a duo.

The program has been planned for months. But falling one week after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the reunion is particularly poignant and significant for them.

‘It breaks anyone’s heart’

"It's unspeakable what happened," Steinberg said. "I read about Rose Mallinger, the 97-year-old woman who lived her whole life, and to go this way, that's horrific. It breaks anyone's heart. This shouldn't happen in our society."

Their program for the evening begins with "Prayer," a movement from composer Ernest Bloch's 1924 triptych From Jewish Life, which will be dedicated to the victims of the shooting. It will continue with selections from Bach, three Klezmer tunes, and a world premiere of a clarinet and cello duet commissioned for the reunion and written by California composer Joel Jacklich.

The synagogue's children's choir and a harpist will also perform.

Rabbi Debra Bowen, who oversees Temple Beth'El, said Steinberg first contacted her for a tour of the synagogue after visiting the neighborhood with his friends. He asked if the synagogue might be willing to host the reunion concert, and she agreed.

She reached out to Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Fort Washington's Congregation Or Hadash, which has past partnered with Temple Beth'El on Martin Luther King Day services and other occasions, to see if his synagogue wanted to be involved, and some of his congregants will be attending.

"A concert like this will have a cathartic aspect, because people are looking for ways to express their grief and solidarity," Waxman said. Rabbi Jon Cutler of the Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County, a longtime friend of Bowen's, will also participate.

A classical musical cluster

Other kids who once lived near Steinberg and Sturman pursued careers in classical music, including concert pianist Barbara Nissman, who made her American debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy, and violin maker Samuel Zygmuntowicz, who has made violins for Isaac Stern and Joshua Bell.

His international concert career behind him, Sturman went on to teach music in public schools and recently retired.

WATCH: Sturman conducts one of his middle school ensembles

After rehearsing cross-country via FaceTime — Sturman lives in California — the old friends are finally ready to take the stage together to show unity and celebrate their childhood memories in the neighborhood where they grew up.

"The concert will be part of the healing process," Steinberg said. "We will pause in our grief, but carry on in our lives."

Havdalah mini-concert, 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Congregation Temple Beth'El, 7350 Lowber Ave., free with suggested donations for the synagogue, 215-276-4330,