Cantor brings warmth and spirit to familiar turf
Debi Zeiontz has come home again — to New Jersey — as she begins her new role as cantor at Temple Shalom in Aberdeen.
Zeiontz grew up in Manalapan at the Reform Temple Shaari Emeth — not far from her new synagogue — where Cantor Wayne Siet had a “very large influence” on the young high school student, she said.
At age 15, Zeiontz told Siet she would become a cantor.
“I love the beautiful music that the Reform movement offers, and so through the music I became an active participant in Judaism,” she said.
But it was not until much later that those feelings fueled her decision to become a Jewish professional.
Zeiontz went to Ithaca College on a music scholarship, but emerged with a BS in nutrition. She worked in the nutrition field for several years until she decided to make a switch.
“When I was 30 years old I asked myself what I was really doing to help the world,” she said. “I realized that it was my time to use the gift that God gave to me, and I thought that the best way for me to do that would be to combine my love of Judaism with my love of music.
“I love children and I love working with people and I love music and I love Judaism so I decided to put all that together and start over in a new field,” she said — and enrolled in cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Zeiontz went on to serve as a student cantor at East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn and Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights. She then moved to Atlanta and was the cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai there for four years before relocating to Manalapan.
Although Zeiontz was not invested at JTS, she is considering returning to finish her cantorial studies at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary.
When she entered JTS, a Conservative institution, she was a member of a Conservative synagogue, but said she now feels comfortable in a Reform synagogue. She has been active in the movement since her youth, when, in addition to belonging to the Reform temple, she went to Reform summer camps and participated in the movement’s NFTY youth group. She said she is inspired by “the spirit that courses through the Reform movement music.”
Zeiontz — who lives with her husband, Steve, and their eight-year-old son, Josh, in Princeton Junction — officially began at Temple Shalom July 1, succeeding Leon Sher, who is now the cantor at Har Sinai Temple in Pennington.
“I’m excited about her presence in our congregation,” Rabbi Laurence Malinger, Temple Shalom’s religious leader, told NJJN. “She brings a great deal of enthusiasm and personal warmth. She possesses a beautiful voice, but also a personality that is both engaging and welcoming.”
Zeiontz said she is “delighted” to be working at Temple Shalom, specifically with a “terrific partner” in Malinger.
She said she wants to continue the congregation’s tradition of being warm, welcoming, and active: “Everyone actively participates in every aspect of the congregation and I love that,” she said. “I would just like to continue bringing the warmth and the spirit and the joy and the worship through musical prayer that has always been a part of Temple Shalom.”