Don’t ask Cantor Ted Aronson how it feels to be retiring after 45 years at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the only synagogue he’s ever served.
“I don’t feel like I’m retiring. It just feels like I’m getting ready for summer vacation,” he told a visitor amidst piles of boxes moved across the hall from an office twice the size of his new digs as cantor emeritus.
And don’t ask the congregants how they feel. At a celebratory Friday night service on May 18, one of two events feting Aronson, he got up and told the South Orange congregation, “I’m not really retiring. It was just a joke.” He got a standing ovation.
Sometime around Sept. 16, it should start sinking in. That’s when Cantor Rebecca Moses will lead her first High Holy Day service at Sharey Tefilo-Israel (she starts July 3). For the holidays, Aronson will be at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass., where his musician son Noah is artist-in-residence.
At TSTI, he’ll still work one-third of the time “in every way except cantorial,” he said. Aronson has had a hand in almost every aspect of the synagogue over the years. With degrees in education and social work, he has been, at times, religious school director, preschool creator, and pastoral counselor. In the aftermath of the 1982 merger of Temple Israel and Temple Sharey Tefilo and a period of frequent changeover in rabbinic leadership, “he’s been the stability of the congregation, the thread that kept everything going,” said Henry Kay, a past president of the congregation.
Aronson plans to continue visiting sick congregants, leading life-cycle events, and being generally supportive of the clergy. He’s also planning to lead a temple trip to Israel in December.
“I’m not going away. My role is just changing,” he said. “That’s nice for me and for the synagogue.”
Aronson nearly passed up the opportunity to interview at Temple Sharey Tefilo, as it was then known, in East Orange. Fresh out of cantorial school, he’d already decided on a synagogue in Ohio when he met the Sharey Tefilo rabbi, Charles Annes. “This is a man I want to work with,” he said he remembered thinking. “These are people I want to be friends with.”
In some ways, it was Annes, a jazz musician himself, who set Aronson on the path of musical creativity that has become the tradition at TSTI. “It was 1967. I was just 23. I wasn’t finished growing,” said Aronson. The synagogue, under Annes’s leadership, commissioned a rock Shabbat by Gershon Kingsley, a pioneer on the Moog synthesizer.
“I think it was an incredible start. And the synagogue wanted creativity. They loved it and welcomed it and were willing to fund it,” Aronson said.
Three years earlier, while still in cantorial school, Aronson met a very young Shlomo Carlebach, who gave a concert in Tel Aviv.
“It changed everything for me,” said Aronson. “The whole cantorial process was focused on traditional hazanut. And that tradition was not relevant to me any more. What moved me was this new Israeli music — the flavor of Israeli music and the movement of Carlebach. That summer, I fell in love with Israel, with Hebrew, and with Israeli and hasidic music.”
Marjorie Weil, a longtime congregant, and her family were among those who joined Temple Israel when it broke away from Temple Sharey Tefilo in 1948 and moved to South Orange. She first met Aronson when the two congregations merged in 1982. “It took us a little time to get adjusted to our new congregation,” she said. “But Ted was wonderful.…He’s a real people person. No matter if you’re 60 or six, you always got a lovely warm greeting.”
It took Kay and his wife, Laurie, a little time to warm up to Aronson’s style and the Reform synagogue. They had both grown up Orthodox.
“There was a bearded, guitar-playing cantor,” said Henry of the first service they attended. “It was very strange for us, having more of a traditional background.” So Kay went up to him after the service and said, “That music is terrible.” Aronson wasn’t intimidated, said Kay, and responded, “‘Just listen. You’ll learn and get used to it.’ Pretty soon, it became very familiar, and we grew to enjoy Ted being innovative and willing to try new things.”
Kay was president of the congregation in the early 1980s. Now a member of Beth Elohim, where Aronson’s son is, he has remained friends with Aronson and returned for the June 9 gala in Aronson’s honor.
Hope Pomerantz and her husband joined TSTI almost 20 years ago. “It was the music and Ted,” she said. “I couldn’t live without the music. Here, it was so about the music — that’s what builds the service.”
Pomerantz also appreciated the partnership between Aronson and Rabbi Daniel Cohen, who arrived almost 20 years ago, after a series of rabbis. “They are such a tight team and you feel it,” she said.
Aronson acknowledged that it took a little while to settle into a rhythm with Cohen. “There was a little push and pull, maybe because I’m so much older and was active in every area of the synagogue,” he said. “But when we began to understand each other, things got better. Now we are good friends, and I have tremendous respect for him.”
Cohen agreed. “We always liked each other but it took us some time to learn how to dance together,” he said. “Once we did, however, it has been a relationship that is rarely seen in the clergy and one I value more than I can express. Ted Aronson is not just my colleague; he is one of my dearest friends.”
Asked what he hoped his legacy might be, Aronson was stumped.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If you ask me what’s important, I’ll tell you it’s to be someone involved in building a community, whatever that means. I like being a singer, but it’s a means to an end. The more we have the opportunity to build community, the more we will be able to be successful as Jews. And that’s what it’s all about — helping people find ways to be Jewish.”