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Beth Israel's new cantor will emphasize participation

By Leon Cohen
Special to The Chronicle

August 31st, 2009


 At a recent Kiddush after Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Jacob Herber asked the synagogue’s new cantor, Jeremy Stein, to lead the group in singing some zmirot (Sabbath hymns).

Congregants not only started singing along, but some started to dance, and tables had to be pushed aside to make room, Stein, 32, reported during an interview on Aug. 7 in his office.

“I felt excited to see that,” said Stein, who officially started at Beth Israel at the beginning of August. “I hope that will continue.”

Indeed, he emphasized that his approach to being a cantor involves seeking to involve the congregation.

While sometimes a service demands that a cantor sing solo, “I’m not someone who enjoys leading a service by myself,” he said. “My voice should indicate that I want everybody to sing with me.”

And he says he can do that while still “preserving traditional nusach” — the melodic motifs traditionally associated with prayers at particular times of the Jewish religious year.

“Nusach and modern congregational melodies shouldn’t be mutually exclusive,” he said. “They can exist together.”

That approach seems to be what Beth Israel was seeking. During the interview process, “time and again, they [synagogue officials] described what they were looking for, and it was in line with what I wanted to do as a chazan,” Stein said.

Both Stein and CBI feel it’s a good fit.

“I find him to be thoughtful, energetic, and hardworking,” said Herber in a telephone interview on Aug. 13. “I’m looking forward to him helping me make Congregation Beth Israel a vibrant and welcoming Conservative synagogue.”


Via the flute

Most of the cantors this writer has interviewed over the years came to the profession through being singers first. Stein, however, came to formal music study as an instrumentalist.

A native of Rhode Island and the second of three brothers, Stein had studied some violin and piano; then when he was 8, his history professor father suggested that he try the flute.

He took to the instrument — “It was something I was good at, and it was fun to be good at something” — to the point that he eventually majored in it at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He also worked as a professional jazz and rock flutist, a music arranger and producer; and had a band that released a recording.

However, he also had always been involved in the Conservative movement. He is a graduate of the Alperin Schechter Day School in Providence. He also was active in his synagogue’s junior congregation, and at the New England Camp Ramah, where he went from camper to counselor to rosh shira (head song leader).

And while “I never considered myself a singer,” he sang all his life in Jewish settings, including at Camp Ramah, at the Hillel Foundation at Boston University, and at a synagogue where he worked as a religious school teacher and junior congregation leader.

He knew that he enjoyed leading services, and he had been thinking about becoming a cantor even as an undergraduate flute major. But upon graduation, he decided he would try the life of a professional flutist first, and did so for about six years.

“There were a lot of highs and lows in the music world,” but “at a certain point, I reached a plateau,” he said. “I felt I had gotten as far as things were going to get.”

At around that point, the Hebrew College near Boston started a cantorial school. Stein attended for a year, “decided to stick with it,” and transferred to the Jewish Theological Seminary. He graduated this past May.

In looking back over his life during the interview, Stein said he thought of a line from Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Sages), “Who is wise? One who learns from all people” (4:1).

“I’ve made the most of the opportunity to learn from all of my life experiences and all the people I’ve worked with,” he said. “All I’ve experienced and learned has led me here, where I plan to make my new home.”

Formerly op-ed editor, Leon Cohen has written for The Chronicle for more than 25 years.