Remembering a champion of Jewish song

Remembering a champion of Jewish song

Jules Frankel — here during a visit to Jerusalem — was renowned throughout central New Jersey for his music that connected people to Judaism.     
Jules Frankel — here during a visit to Jerusalem — was renowned throughout central New Jersey for his music that connected people to Judaism.     

To those who knew him, Jules Frankel was a man who viewed life “through a Jewish lens” and loved to share his love of Judaism through song.

The East Brunswick resident, who died Oct. 27 at age 62 of a brain tumor, founded and led Chavurat Kol Haneshama, which held monthly worship services at different venues in central New Jersey for more than 13 years. About a decade ago, the havura began partnering with Temple Emanu-El in Edison for Selihot services. In 2013, he developed and helped lead Rock Hashanah, an almost all-musical Rosh Hashana service, for Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro. 

Frankel is perhaps best known, however, for launching a Shabbat Shira kumsitz, an annual sing-along named for and coinciding with the Torah portion that includes the chanting of the song sung by the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea in the flight from Egypt. Begun about 20 years ago in the living room of Frankel and his wife of 39 years, Susan, the kumsitz has for many years been held at the East Brunswick Jewish Center, attracting hundreds from throughout Middlesex, Monmouth, and Mercer counties.

This year’s program will be held as usual on Shabbat Shira, Jan. 23, as a tribute to Frankel. It is sponsored by Kol Haneshama in partnership with EBJC and Temple Emanu-El. It will be led by his daughter, Rabbi Leora Frankel, religious leader of the Community Synagogue in Rye, NY, with guest artist Rabbi Noam Katz, a contemporary Jewish singer.

Also performing will be Makhelat Hamercaz, the Jewish choir of central New Jersey under the direction of cantors Anna West Ott of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick and Sheldon Levin of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen.

The event, said program committee member Claire Jacobs Elson of East Brunswick, “will really pay tribute to Jules and what he created and envisioned for this community judaically. It’s really going to be a celebration of his life and his contributions to the Jewish community.”

The program will feature sing-alongs and a PowerPoint presentation of Frankel’s life. Guests will share stories and memories of the honoree.

“This program is not a religious service,” said Elson. “It’s fun, interesting, and will have moments of spirituality as we all come together with our collective experiences to share our love of Jewish songs. At the end of this program people always feel good and uplifted. We will always be grateful to Jules for bringing us all together and for his commitment to the Jewish community.”

Rabbi David Vaisberg of Temple Emanu-El has known Frankel since he was 18 years old, when Frankel would perform at summer camps and at Hava Nashira, a weeklong annual song leaders’ retreat in Wisconsin.

“He had a tremendous passion for Jewish life,” said Vaisberg, who also graduated from rabbinical school with Leora Frankel. “He was a mensch. He really pushed boundaries and sought to reach people where they were. He was a creative and very caring person.”

In addition to Selihot, Frankel also was instrumental in developing and performing the synagogue’s monthly Shabbat Alive service.

“Jules was the creative force behind Rock Hashana,” said Cantor Joanna Alexander of Temple Rodeph Torah. She recalled that the synagogue’s monthly Rock Shabbat service had become so popular, congregants requested a similar service be conducted at Rosh Hashana. Unsure of how to formulate such a service, Alexander asked for help on Hava Nashira’s listserv, and Frankel responded. “He led the service, and the congregation loved him. We didn’t know what to expect, but that first year we had 700 people attend Rock Hashanah and only 250 attend the traditional service.” 

While Frankel planned the 2014 service, he was unable to attend because of his illness. 

Martin Raffel of East Brunswick said the first time he and his wife, Maris Chavenson — who is also on the program committee — heard Frankel play was when their children attended the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick, where Frankel was the volunteer song leader. He was also a volunteer song leader at EBJC’s religious school for years.

Frankel served as artistic director for the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County’s celebrations of Israel’s 50th and 60th Independence Day celebrations, held at the State Theatre in New Brunswick.

He also released compact discs: @ Your Service, a compilation of original music, and Schechter Sings!: Around the Year in Song.

“Over 20 years our families became close friends,” said Raffel, a member of Kol Haneshama. “We went wherever Jules went. He brought leading figures in Jewish music, like Debbie Friedman, to the area. One of Jules’s favorite sayings was, ‘It’s a beautiful thing.’ 

“I would say Jules was a beautiful thing to hundreds and hundreds of Jewish adults and children in central New Jersey.”

‘He lived to be Jewish’

Frankel was born and raised in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, the son of Holocaust survivors from Vienna. Susan Frankel said he was named after his maternal grandparents, Julius and Klara Nagler, who were murdered in the Shoa. 

“He wanted to connect Jews to Judaism and to perpetuate people’s connection to Judaism through music,” said Susan. “He lived to be Jewish and saw life through a Jewish lens. Being Jewish was the most important thing in his life.”

She said the couple met when they were 14 through Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement. She called Jules “my Ten Commandments boy” because he was so ethical.

He worked summers at Camp Tel Yehudah, the organization’s camp, and became president of the local club and the Manhattan Young Judaea region. 

Frankel cofounded the Tikva Israeli Folk Dance Troupe, and was a member of the Young Judaea National Dance Group, which performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Salute to Israel Parade.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, Frankel earned a degree from City College of New York, majoring in Hebrew, and was elected Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a master’s in business administration from New York University and began a career in accounting, eventually joining Wilkin & Guttenplan, PC, in East Brunswick in 1986, becoming a partner three years later. 

Susan Frankel said attending Hava Nashira for the first time in 1996 had a profound effect on her husband. He met and became friends with Friedman, and was introduced to a canon of liturgical music that “instantly resonated” with him. He connected with cantors and Jewish song leaders from around the world.

In addition to his wife, daughter Leora and her husband, Andrew Sage, of Port Chester, NY, Frankel leaves a son David and his wife, Donielle Lavintman-Cohen, of Manhattan, and two grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements were by Mount Sinai Memorial Chapels, East Brunswick. Burial was in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Glendale, NY.

Memorial contributions may be made to Camp Tel Yehudah.

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