After several years focusing on a career in musical and theatrical performance and “doing Jewish” on the side, Hazzan Arthur Katlin found his true vocation.
“I found that being a cantor not only gave me a strong involvement in my Judaism and using my voice to sing but also making a difference in family’s lives on a very personal basis,” he told NJJN.
This year Katlin is celebrating 25 years with Congregation Adath Israel in Lawrenceville, an anniversary being recognized with three special events.
The first, on Feb. 27, was a Community Unity Celebration with food and children’s activities and songs of community, togetherness, and peace from different traditions; it drew 150 people.
A concert, “JEWels of Broadway and Film,” will be held on Sunday, April 3, in conjunction with the dedication of a niche to hold 12 colored-glass medallions from the original 1920s Adath Israel building in Trenton.
On Sunday, May 15, a formal cantorial concert will combine members of cantors’ ensembles from New Jersey and Philadelphia.
Looking back on the highlights of his cantorial career, Katlin touched on both personal connections and professional accomplishments.
“I have loved watching families grow,” he said. “It’s been a joy to be at baby namings and britot mila and then have the joy of watching them get married.”
Katlin has also found satisfaction in teaching congregants of all ages. “I love to see children get excited, whether about reading or mastering a prayer or coming together as a class,” he said. He especially enjoys “having a class that is very antagonistic and helping mold it into a more nurturing environment.”
Brenda Solomon, who was principal of the religious school when Katlin arrived and is now a close friend, highlighted Katlin’s ability to make deep human connections. “I think Art is a person who is sincerely interested in other people. He is a good friend to everybody. He is very empathetic when other people have things they need to deal with,” she said.
Bernice Abramovich, cochair of the anniversary celebration, cochair of the design committee, and past congregation president, wrote similarly about Katlin’s concern for others in an e-mail: “He knows, cares about, and always remembers to ask about family members. He welcomes newcomers.”
Katlin grew up in Silver Spring and Wheaton, Md., at two Conservative synagogues, Agudath Achim and Temple Israel, and was also involved in B’nai B’rith. At the University of Maryland he studied interior architectural design and performing arts.
“I really wanted to be involved in music; that’s where my heart was,” he said.
After college he worked for a season at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club in Florida, then moved to Los Angeles, where for five years, he said, he did “a whole smattering of things to try to make a career in music” — programs for Hadassah and ORT, opera in a company that toured city schools, professional dinner theater, minor commercial work, lots of singing telegrams, restaurant performances, and playing an extra in a couple of television shows — while at the same time performing solos at synagogues and tutoring b’nei mitzva students.
Eventually he found a program that trained professionals in the cantorial arts, through Hebrew Union College, as well as a mentor, William Sharlin, cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. He worked in synagogues throughout the LA area, eventually making the decision to enroll at the Jewish Theological Seminary for full-time cantorial study.
Katlin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sacred music, a master’s degree in Jewish education, and the diploma of hazzan. While working on his second master’s he was offered a position at Adath Israel, and he’s been there ever since. He and his wife, Evette, are the parents of Aaron and Shara, now young adults.
Training b’nei mitzva students has been central in his cantorate, said Katlin, who also created a Yad Squad of about 30 Torah readers through classes in cantillation.
In addition to the “wonderful job” he does with b’nei mitzva training, Solomon particularly noted how Katlin relates to the youngest children: “You have a real joy to see him dancing and singing with the little kids.”
In addition to traditional music, Katlin has also brought to the synagogue more modern tunes. He has led youth and adult choirs as well as instrumental bands, often bringing together musicians from the congregation and larger community. He has conducted the New Jersey Cantors Concert Ensemble, in rotation with other cantors, as well as the interfaith community choir for the Lawrence Township Thanksgiving service.
“He is a very versatile singer and performer,” Solomon said. “His wife also has a beautiful voice so they often do duets together.”
In conducting services, Katlin likes to teach new melodies, and with the blessing of the ritual committee has increased the use of instrumental music. “I like to work with the community and try to create an environment that reaches as many people as I can,” he said.