Sha’arey Shalom’s new cantor in tune with congregation
Jason Rosenman inherits rich musical traditions
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Some kvelling from Jason Rosenman’s mother was the key that opened the door to his cantorial career. While Rosenman was studying for his bachelor’s in vocal performance at Syracuse University, his mother boasted of her son’s talents to the cantor of his family’s synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom in New City, N.Y.
The cantor promptly invited Rosenman to help lead High Holy Day services and he accepted in what turned out to be a timely offer, both spiritually and musically.
“I’d been having numerous conversations with people about God, and that made me explore my own Jewish upbringing,” he said.
The family previously belonged to a congregation with an Orthodox rabbi, but he said that experiencing Reform Judaism was a revelation. “I discovered a more liberal approach to Judaism with a more wide-open menu, so to speak, of music. You could have organ, guitar, mixed soprano, alto, bass, and tenor.” He added, “And I liked the individual autonomy of the Reform movement.”
Rosenman started his tenure at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield on July 1, and is trying to gain as much insight as he can about the congregation’s musical style.
“I’m learning from the choir and the rabbi and the leadership what the ‘minhag hamakom’ [tradition of the place] is,” he told NJJN on a recent Thursday afternoon.
The Reform congregation has a rich musical history that includes singing melodies written by a former music director, Ron Brown.
Rosenman, a high baritone who grew up singing, taking voice lessons, and playing the euphonium — similar to a baritone horn or trombone — is no stranger to singing in synagogue. In fact, he was often asked to sing as a child at Congregation Sons of Jacob in Haverstraw, N.Y., the traditional congregation where he grew up.
Sitting in his office, still full of books and decorations left by his recently retired predecessor, Amy Daniels, Rosenman discussed his musical vision for Sha’arey Shalom and revealed his secret to getting acclimated to a new community.
For Rosenman, Sha’arey Shalom feels like home. “I showed up to audition and interview, and it was a fit,” he said. “I liked them, and they liked me.”
The interview was not the first time he visited the congregation — he had previously performed there with the New Jersey Cantor’s Concert Ensemble and found it to be a “very warm, welcoming, and down to earth” place.
“We liked his musical ability, his warmth, and his personality,” said Roger Held, who served on the search committee. “And we liked his desire to become integrated into the congregation. He’s not just coming to be an employee, but part of our family.”
What’s more, it was the cantor of Temple Beth Shalom who suggested the cantorate as a profession to Rosenman.
The new cantor calls his style “eclectic.” “I love just about every genre of music,” he said. In the car, he will probably tune into classical music, but he’s a fan of jazz and classic rock as well.
In the synagogue, he finds his musical home in certain liturgical pieces: Ben Steinberg’s “Shalom Rav” is particularly meaningful to him. “It really draws me in,” he said. The piece has a sentimental hold on him. “It was my introduction to the Reform movement,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of music — very spiritual.” Mindful of congregants’ favorites, he pointed out that he also likes the popular version of “Shalom Rav” written by Jeff Klepper, and he was quick to bring up his favorite Debbie Friedman songs and prayers, including “You Are the One,” “Laugh at All My Dreams,” and “L’chi Lach.”
His vision for Sha’arey Shalom focuses on “being a holy community,” he said. “I’m coming into a place people already call a spiritual home and I want them to continue to do so.”
Of course, he would eventually enjoy expanding the repertoire of the congregation, trying some of the events he did at a previous congregation in Akron, Ohio, including a rock Shabbat and a Gospel Shabbat, which he created in partnership with the leader of a local African-American church. “It generated a lot of excitement, a lot of ruach,” he said.
He also going to be looking for the right balance between “kevah” (what is fixed in the liturgy) and “kavanah” (the worshipper’s intention), which he said he interprets in terms of music as “what is fixed and what might be a breath of fresh air.”
His secret to adapting to a new congregation? Listening.
“I’m learning from the volunteers I’m working with,” he said about the musical traditions, and “I love learning from my students,” he said with regard to working with children.
Rosenman was invested as a cantor by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He has served as cantor at a variety of congregations in New Jersey, Florida, and Ohio, and he had stints at Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan and Fair Lawn Jewish Center before coming to Sha’arey Shalom.
He and his wife Amy, who is originally from Union, live in North Brunswick with their daughter, Samantha, 8. Asked what they are most looking forward to, he said, “Being part of the community, worshiping together, connecting with the community, and participating in every aspect of the community.
“And I’m looking forward to teaching, but also learning from the people I teach.”