Former opera singer blends music and worship participation
By Amy Wolff Sorter
The purpose of a cantor, or hazzan, is to uplift a congregation during Jewish worship.
“The role of the hazzan is to inspire the congregation, both in niggun and in meaningful prayer,” Congregation Ahavath Sholom’s Rabbi Andrew Bloom said.
It was for that purpose, and others, that Jeffrey Weber came to Texas in July, taking over as Ahavath Sholom’s hazzan. Weber, a classically trained tenor vocalist, has an impressive performance career, featuring stints with the Metropolitan and New York City Operas, as well as other international performance endeavors. He could have continued that path to a successful performance career, but instead, changed direction.
“God blessed me with the ability to sing,” Weber said. “It’s more meaningful for me to make a difference and be a part of people’s lives, as opposed to being on the other side of the footlights.”
The early years
Born in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, Weber was raised on Long Island, in Commack, New York. Weber’s family — father, Warren Weber; mother, Phyllis Weber; and sister, Robyn (Weber) Rubin — attended the local Conservative shul only during the High Holidays. The family wasn’t particularly musical; however, Warren had sung on a local radio show, as a teenager.
“He was a crooner,” Weber said. “He sang with Vic Damone before he became Vic Damone.”
Though Warren was a radiologist by trade, he had a love for opera and classical music, a love he passed down to his son.
“There was a whole room in his house dedicated to stereo equipment and thousands of LPs,” Cantor Weber said.
Weber began piano lessons in first grade, continuing to play for several years. While voice was his main instrument, he also played guitar and “dabbled” in bass and drums.
“I used to have long hair,” Weber said. “While I performed opera, I was also in a heavy metal band.”
Music and a religious purpose
Weber’s artistic talents earned him a spot at the Julliard School of Music, as well as with several opera companies in the New York City area. While at Julliard, Weber truly connected with Judaism, thanks to a job performing with a male octet at Park East Synagogue. Over the years, he lent his talents to shul quartets, including Park Avenue Synagogue and Sutton Place Synagogue in New York City and Congregation Ohev Shalom in Orange, New Jersey. As he performed with secular companies, he realized his avocation was merging music and religion.
Following his graduation from Julliard, Weber attended the Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies (Machon Schechter) in Israel, which led him to the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School.
During his studies at cantorial school, Weber held student cantorial and cantor/hazzan positions at a variety of synagogues, including Congregation Beth El in New London, Connecticut; Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts; and Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Paterson, New Jersey. Once he received his diploma of Hazzan, Master’s of Sacred Music, Weber’s resume grew to include Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.; Temple Beth Shalom in Sarasota, Florida; and his most recent stint with Beth Sholom Congregation, in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.
On the personal side, Weber married Andrea in 1990. Andrea, an accomplished opera singer, sang at the Metropolitan and New York City Operas, as well as with top music festivals nationwide and, as Weber put it, “helped me with many temple choirs over the years.” The couple have two sons: Samuel, age 23, a recent graduate from the University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), and 21-year-old Ben, who attends the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Arrival in Texas
Weber learned about the Fort Worth cantorial job opening through the Cantors Assembly of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and immediately jumped on it, though he’d never been to Texas.
In researching Fort Worth’s Conservative shul, Weber was impressed with Rabbi Bloom’s credentials.
“I looked at his background, and saw where he came from,” Weber said. “I thought he would be a good partner to work with.”
Meanwhile, in North Texas, Ahavath Sholom’s 17-person committee, led by Marvin Beleck, was nearing the end of a five-month-long cantorial search process. The group had combed through multiple resumes from across the United States, as well as Israel and Poland, while participating in several Skype and phone interviews. The committee brought in the finalists, with Weber earning the spot. It was “his friendliness, his voice and history” that placed Weber in the position, according to Michael Linn, Ahavath Sholom’s executive director.
“He’s a good fit,” Linn added. “He’s a mensch.”
“He’s very personable,” added Bloom, who also dubbed Weber a mensch. “He comes with plenty of experience in the cantorial world, and we get along very well.”
The family’s migration from Pennsylvania to Texas has been positive, so far. Weber said he appreciates the Texas-friendly attitude. As for the North Texas heat? “I’m used to it,” he said. “I worked in Sarasota. There was heat there.”
Goals and objectives
Weber will eventually have oversight of Ahavath Sholom’s Learning & Engagement Center. In the meantime, the hazzan’s short-term goals involve familiarizing himself with the shul’s style of music.
“It’s imperative you don’t take that away from people,” he said. “It’s what they are used to, it’s what connects them to prayer.”
Weber also wants to form a choir and a band with the purpose of encouraging congregants to sing with him versus him singing at them.
“It goes back to the difference between opera singing, standing up there and performing as the entertainment, versus welcoming people to join you in singing,” he said.
This is not to suggest, however, that there is absolutely no link between Weber’s career as a performer versus hazzan. Through opera, Weber was able to use music to interpret foreign-language stories for audiences.
“Most people don’t speak Hebrew, either,” he said. “As hazzan, my objective is to interpret text musically, so people understand the feeling of it, even if they might not understand the words.”