Cantor Leon Sher was following in the footsteps of his childhood cantor as he began his new role as the cantor at Har Sinai Temple.
Sher said he felt a special connection to the Reform synagogue in Pennington because when he was growing up in Pennsylvania, it was Har Sinai’s former cantor of 22 years, David Wisnia, who served at his synagogue.
“For me, the traditional cantorial role, I always imagine Cantor Wisnia in my mind,” said Sher. “When I sing what I consider traditional cantorial music, Cantor Wisnia’s voice is in my ear.”
Sher will be working part-time at Har Sinai, leading services there on Shabbat, tutoring b’nei mitzva youngsters, and working with the adult choir.
He is succeeding Cantor Emily Pincus, who left the congregation a year ago; student cantor Lauren Furman has been filling the role since then.
Sher said he wants to “to fit in and be sure that the members are happy.”
Sher led the congregation July 6 at a Shabbat service in his honor. “I made an effort to use melodies that most people know at the congregation, although I definitely also introduced that first night at least one, possibly two new melodies,” he said. “My initial feeling is to make a good smooth transition and for people to be happy and comfortable.”
Sher explained that at the first service he led, he opened with the “traditional Goldfarb ‘Shalom Aleichem’ melody,” then transitioned to the “relatively new” Debbie Friedman melody, and then went back to the traditional melody to conclude the song.
Sher said he hopes to engage his new congregation in song and looks forward to working with Rabbi Stuart Pollack.
“My vision is, like most other things in life, the more you put into something the more you get out of it, so I want people to engage in the congregation in general and in worship when I’m there,” he said.
Always a musician
Sher said he has always been a Jewish musician. In his youth, he was a song leader in Reform summer camps and the Reform youth group NFTY. While an undergraduate at Brandeis University, he helped lead the Reform High Holy Day services, some of his fondest memories. He remained involved in the Brandeis services for many years and is still connected to those in charge of the services.
At Brandeis he earned a degree in Near Eastern and Judaic studies and then went on to get a master’s degree in computer science from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He spent 17 years in the computer industry before deciding to become a professional cantor.
Sher was invested as a cantor in 2003 at New York’s Hebrew Union College. He previously served at Temple Shalom in Aberdeen and is a faculty member of the North American Jewish Choral Festival and a conductor, accompanist, composer, and arranger for chapters of HaZamir, the international Jewish high school choir. Among his compositions is “Heal Us Now,” which was performed at a memorial and healing service on Capitol Hill for the victims of the January 2011 shooting in Arizona that left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords wounded.
He is a current and founding member of Beged Kefet, a Jewish music group that donates the proceeds from performances and recordings to Myriam’s Dream, an organization that raises funds and consciousness for the benefit of the elderly and disabled.
Sher’s wife, Beth, is also a member of Beged Kefet, and he has two daughters in their 20s.
Sher will also begin work part-time as the music director at Temple Beth-El in Voorhees, where he will teach music in the preschool and religious school and will conduct the junior, high school, and adult choirs.