Norman Summers, known as ‘cantors’ cantor,’ dies at 84
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Norman Summers, who served as cantor at Temple B’nai Jeshurun for over 50 years and played a national leadership role among Reform cantors, died on Jan. 1. He was 84.
Summers served B’nai Jeshurun from 1959 until his retirement in 1999, and then as cantor emeritus.
A former president of the American Conference of Cantors, he helped established the organization’s pension plan. Summers also taught at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 1970 through 1987. The ACC awarded him the Semiatin Award for outstanding service to the American cantorate in 1985.
In a eulogy, TBJ’s current cantor, Howard Stahl, recalled what it was like to be a student of his predecessor.
“His patient and loving attentiveness to his 500 colleagues who sought his advice and counsel endeared him to them,” he said. “We respected him, we depended on him, and we cherished his good judgment and his wise counsel.”
Norman Summers was born in 1927 and raised in Toronto. A baritone, he studied at the Toronto Conservatory of Music, now the Royal Conservatory of Music at the University of Toronto. While a student there, he held his first position as a cantorial soloist at Holy Blossom Temple, a prominent Reform congregation in Toronto. Under the sponsorship of the Canadian government, he performed in recitals throughout Ontario and appeared with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Although he was rejected twice by HUC — at that time the cantorate was sometimes used as a stepping stone into an operatic career — he eventually enrolled there after a stint in the army. Following investiture in the cantorate in 1957, he won the Lawrence J. Finkel Award for Distinguished Studies, as well as the William Matheaus Sullivan Foundation grant, which resulted in a Carnegie Hall appearance.
He was hired by B’nai Jeshurun in 1959. The congregation was then located in Newark — it is now in Short Hills — and Rabbi Ely Pilchik (1923-2003) was religious leader. The same year, Rabbi Barry Greene joined the congregation and the two served together for over 40 years. Greene died in 2009.
Summers was a member of the music committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of the liturgy committee for the revision of the Gates of Prayer, the prayerbook of the Reform Movement. He was the editor of the Jewish Welfare Board’s “Jewish Music Notes” publication.
Over the course of his career he composed, arranged, and/or recorded many liturgical pieces, including “Thirty Confirmation Cantatas,” an oratorio titled “Proclaim Liberty,” two Shabbat evening services for cantor and choir, a Shabbat morning service, and a memorial service for Yom Kippur.
In September 2007, B’nai Jeshurun feted Summers in honor of 50 years in the cantorate. At that time, in an interview with NJJN, he said a highlight of his career was the time he was summoned by a dying congregant.
“I went over to her bed. I put my arms around her. I kissed her forehead,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Please sit down.’ She said, ‘When you chant ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I feel very close to God.’”
She asked him to chant the prayer for her. “I chanted softly. We were both crying,” he recalled.
In that same article, Eleanor Kessler Cohen, a fourth-generation member of B’nai Jeshurun, said of Summers, “I was always struck by the humanity of the man. He had not only the gift of musicality, but a genuine niceness and kindness.”
Stahl recalled Summers as “a cantors’ cantor.”
“Norman had a neshama, an inner spirit, that was simply unparalleled,” said Stahl. “Not only was he nurturing to his students, attentive to his congregants, and thoroughly devoted to his family, but he was without that artistic temperament that characterizes so many of my colleagues. He put others first.”
He is survived by his wife, Carole, of Livingston; his children, Sharon Seltzer (Scott) of New Jersey, Dara Blazek of Maryland, and Dr. Dan Summers of Maryland; four grandchildren, Sydney, Laurel, Alexandra, and Sammy; and a sister, Rose Letofsky.
Funeral arrangements were handled by Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel in Livingston.