OTTY 2019 Honoree: the egalitarian cantor

06 Mar 2019 | 03:56

    When Cantor Dov Keren first chanted the worship service at the Sutton Place Synagogue in 1984, it was a vastly different era in Jewish liturgical life — and women were effectively relegated to second-class roles.

    They weren’t counted for a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jews over age 13 required for public prayers. Dancing with the Torah was frowned upon. And they were expected to read the prayers in English, not in Hebrew.

    Flash forward 35 years. The only constant at the Conservative shul on East 51st Street is that the 77-year-old, Israeli-born, former economist is still the musical prayer leader — and his rich lyrical voice can still make tears well up in the eyes of the devout as he lifts them closer to God.

    But the women have been co-equal with the men for a long time now: They ascend the bimah, the raised platform from which the Torah is read, intone the Hebrew prayers, open and close the Holy Ark housing the Torah scrolls, and daven, or recite the prayers, with the same back-andforth swaying motion that was once the province of the men.

    Sutton Place became officially egalitarian on Jan. 15, 2005. Seven years later, Rabbi Rachel Ain, the first woman to hold the position, was hired. Recently, the matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — have taken their rightful alongside the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the blessing of the ancestors.

    These were all sea changes in the life of a formerly Orthodox shul that was founded in 1906 and affiliated with the Conservative movement only in the mid-1950s.

    And no one embraced them more than the sabra who was born before the creation of the state of Israel — and came of age in the yeshivas, religious schools, synagogues, conservatories and choirs of Haifa, where he received his musical and cantorial education in the 1950s.

    “I came here to serve the community,” Keren said in an interview in the rabbi’s study. “The community is not here to serve me.”

    Indeed, he noted, the congregation overwhelmingly backed the shift to egalitarianism, becoming the last Conservative shul in Manhattan to make the move. “We lost fewer than five families as a result,” he said.

    Keren considers himself a traditionalist. But he views himself as a public servant, first and foremost. That has been his calling since his military service as a lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1960s.

    Thus, when it came to the right of a woman to be called upon for an aliyah, a reading from the Torah, the will of the public at Sutton Place was very clear, and so it quickly became his will, too:

    “It was the right thing to do, and the right time to do it,” the cantor says. “Becoming egalitarian helped us get more young families to join — and it helped our reputation as a warm, welcoming synagogue that, from the moment you walk in, you feel like you’ve been coming here for a long, long time.”

    Something must have been working: Over the past five years, Ain said, at a time when membership in Conservative shuls nationwide is decidedly on the wane, Sutton Place has grown by an average of five percent per year, to 505 member families from around 430.

    “Right from the very beginning, he welcomed me as a true colleague, partner and friend,” the rabbi noted. “We come from very different backgrounds, different generations, different traditions, different life experiences ... but it’s never gotten in the way of our ability to work closely together.”

    Keren has never stopped evolving or embracing change, including, most recently, the acceptance and use of musical instruments in the Friday night services, she said.

    “He is steeped in Jewish tradition — even as he keeps an eye toward the modern sensibilities,” the rabbi added. Examples abound: For 28 years during cantorial renditions, Keren, in keeping with tradition, mostly faced the Ark, the ornamental cupboard bearing the Torah. But that meant congregants typically saw his back as he sang.

    Then in 2012, the year of Ain’s arrival, he decided to turn around so he could face the worshippers: “I see myself as the people’s messenger to God, and when I see their faces, and get their feedback, it makes me do a better job,” he said.

    Celebrated for his full, rich tenor voice, Keren, who has guest-soloed in Carnegie Hall and performs Yiddish, Hasidic and Israeli works, is a self-described “professional old-time cantor.”

    Keeping traditional Jewish music alive and thriving is a part of that calling. And one way to do so is to meld it with new melodies, Israeli popular songs, congregational singing — and even a Leonard Cohen classic, “Hallelujah,” which he adopted last year for the High Holiday prayers about exile from Jerusalem.

    “He provides continuity in that he’s both representative of the past and willing to broker the future,” said Dr. Shari Pochapin, the synagogue’s president. And then there’s that voice — after 35 years, and just four months shy of his 78th birthday, Keren still sees a voice coach so he can continue to perfect his craft.

    “He gets better every year,” says Rick Kaminer, the immediate past president. “Like a fine wine.”

    Kaminer adds that, “Rabbis came and went, synagogue presidents came and went, but he was always the anchor who created and maintained continuity for our community.”

    Keren has been working with four rabbis, outlasting three of them. But now, after giving a year and a half’s notice, he is finally preparing to step down.

    Sutton Place will hold a gala in his honor on April 10 at the Bohemian National Hall on East 73rd Street, and he’ll officially retire in July 2020 to spend more time with family in Florida, becoming cantor emeritus.

    Why is he leaving? “I’m still at my best,” the cantor said, “and I want to retire when I’m at my best.”