January 18, 2020

Teen ‘Jewish Star’ Winner Uses Her Music for Advocacy

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Sussman

Sixteen-year-old Encino native Stephanie Sussman is one of six winners of Season Two of “Jewish Star Talent Search,” a nationwide competition designed by Jewish Rock Radio for Jewish teens and young adults who are passionate about impacting the Jewish world through music.

The 12 original finalists were selected from several hundred applications before being whittled down to the final six winners in different age categories. Candidates had to submit original music videos along with a written vision statement. Celebrity Jewish performers Noam Katz, Naomi Less, Joe Buchanan, Peri Smilow, Rabbi Josh Warshawsky and Rick Recht — creator of both Jewish Rock Radio and the talent search — judged the competition.

Sussman currently is the president of the USY Chapter at Valley Beth Shalom and was nominated by one of her counselors at Camp Ramah in California. The junior at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills also is involved with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC.)

Sussman told the Journal that she found out she was a winner during her first day of Thanksgiving break. 

“I didn’t think I was [going to] win,” she said. “Not that I didn’t think I was good. It’s good to have the confirmation that people think I’m actually good enough to do this.”

Sussman chose to sing “Arise” by Warshawsky for her entry, a song she said Warshawsky wrote following the 2017 Route 91 Harvest music festival mass shooting in Las Vegas. Before she even knew the song’s origin, she said the music and lyrics resonated with her.

“I think ‘Jewish Stars’ made me realize that when it comes to social justice and advocacy … I want to be the girl singing with the guitar onstage instead of someone who is lobbying.” — Stephanie Sussman

As part of her winnings, Sussman will work with Warshawsky and record “Arise” on an album. “I’ve gotten to know him in group situations, so getting to do [one-on-one mentoring] is really special because I auditioned with his song,” she said. “That’s really exciting. I am also working with [Los Angeles cantorial soloist and Jewish music producer] Josh Goldberg, and I get the opportunity to work with him in the studio because I live in Los Angeles.” 

Sussman also will have a professional studio session to record an original composition or a cover song from a pre-approved list of Jewish music artists, and she will be featured on Jewish Rock Radio, which will broadcast the songs she recorded.

In addition, Sussman will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to attend the 2020 Songleader Bootcamp National Conference (SLBC) for immersive coaching, and along with the other winners will perform live at SLBC. 

Together with Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Jewish Community Center’s Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life, Recht launched SLBC in 2009. The aim of SLBC is to create immersive, inspirational and strategic Jewish leadership programs for Jewish clergy, educators and song leaders.

Recht told the Journal that everyone who entered the competition was automatically enrolled in the Jewish Star Academy, a program for Jewish teens and young adults that gives them the opportunity to learn from Jewish educators how to become stronger Jewish song leaders.

He added that Jewish artists are “ambassadors” for Jewish education and Sussman stood out to him because she “has this extraordinary energy and passion. She’s articulate about her goals for how she wants to impact the Jewish world. I also saw her ability to interact. That’s something that is really important for a Jewish artist to succeed: the ability to engage, to use body language in a way that is going to jump off the stage — or screen in this case — and make someone feel something.”

Sussman, who also plays guitar, hopes she can learn how to write original Jewish music and put new lyrics to melodies she has already created. She added that singing Jewish music is important to her because it “has always been the way I connected to prayer. I’ve had experiences where someone has introduced a new tune to a prayer and I listened to it in a completely different light because I’m not the most fluent in biblical Hebrew and I don’t know what it all means. But hearing it brings another dimension to it and makes it make more sense to me.”

Looking toward the future, Sussman said, “I’m figuring out what I want to do, what college I want to go to, what I want to major in and what I want to do with my life.”

She added,  “I think ‘Jewish Stars’ made me realize that when it comes to social justice and advocacy … I want to be the girl singing with the guitar onstage instead of someone who is lobbying. Words can do so much to convince someone of something, but songs can give you goose bumps and make you cry. Song is really emotionally appealing to people and part of why I connect to it so much.”