Itzhak Zhrebker has filled hearts with Yiddishkeit
By Deb Silverthorn
One of the highest notes of our community will be honored as the Small-Waldman-Cohen 2021-2022 Signature Series celebrates Hazzan Itzhak Zhrebker’s 25th anniversary — plus one — at Congregation Shearith Israel at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at the synagogue. The evening will feature cocktails, heavy hors d’oeuvres, desserts and dancing with Downtown Fever, an Emerald City Band.
Zhrebker’s service to Congregation Shearith Israel began in 1996, his only congregation since immigrating to the United States.
“Our people’s music, our prayers and our connection to Hashem — it has always been within me,” said Itzhak, born in Khmelnytskyi, in Western Ukraine, the son of Nachum and Chaya Nechama — they of blessed memory — and the brother of Fonya. Before arriving in Dallas, he was a clergy member in Tel Aviv and he participated in the training program at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem. He shared in leading High Holy Day services in London and Greensboro, North Carolina.
Zhrebker began studying music, playing piano and singing professionally at just 6 years old. After high school, he earned his undergraduate studies and then a master’s in conducting and choir at the Odessa City Academy of Music. During this time, he served two years as a soldier in the chemical division, and director of the military band for which he played keyboards and tuba. After his military service he was involved in Odessa’s Jewish community, its Jewish Musical Drama Theater and the renaissance of Jewish culture that came under the reforms of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
“There were no synagogues before World War II, there was no Jewish education and all we knew was the Yiddish our parents spoke,” said Zhrebker, who speaks his native Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew and English. “The only heritage we had was on our passport.
“My first siddur and Tanakh came in 1987 from Rabbi Martin Cohen visiting from Vancouver, Canada. I’d never seen or known of cantorial music but the concert was sold out,” he said. “The rabbi heard me sing and said I should go to cantorial school. Although he arranged for me to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I couldn’t leave my family.”
A year later, Zhrebker met Cantor Louis Danto, a Holocaust survivor from Poland; Danto was then a cantor in Toronto, Canada, who was touring Europe. He sang for him and again was met with a recommendation to pursue his education, this time at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. In 1990, Itzhak, his parents and his sister made aliyah, moving to Netanya to be near his mother’s family, who had emigrated 70 years earlier.
Once in Israel, he was accepted and performed fulltime with the New Israeli Opera at the same time he attended the Cantorial Institute, where he remembers wearing his gas masks and seeing rockets as the Gulf War raged on. His teachers were Maestro Elli Jaffe, Hazzanim Naftali Hershtik, Moshe Taube and, remotely, Danto, whom he’d met in Odessa.
“It was a challenging time and many nights we didn’t sleep at all,” said Zhrebker. “Then, literally on the day of Purim, the sirens stopped and the streets were alive. It was beautiful.”
In 1993, while still in school, Itzhak was introduced to the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem’s music director and internationally renowned conductor Maestro Jaffe. He also met the former Leah Korshon, his beshert, and the two were married in 1994. From the Republic of Tartarstan, she had made aliyah two years earlier, lived on a kibbutz and was studying physical therapy at Tel Aviv University.
Shortly thereafter, he completed his program and when in 1994 the Cantors Assembly — the international association of hazzanim — was convening in Israel, Itzhak tested for it and passed, becoming a member. This paved the pathway for his future in Dallas, which opened with an audition here March 3, 1996, and his being offered, and taking the role, May 15 of that year.
“Leah showed tremendous support to my decision and my career, and everyone here was so welcoming, which made the transition very smooth,” he said. “The connection to the community, the warmth of the congregation and its leadership made it very special then and that has all continued through these years.”
Longtime CSI board member Norman Gordon was one of the first to hear Itzhak’s voice. He was invited by the synagogue’s then-president, Jim Samuels, to listen to a cassette. The draw was immediate, and has lasted ever since.
“Cantor Zhrebker knows more about Torah than anyone I know, and his Saturday morning study means so very much to me,” said Gordon. “He’s also one of the most spiritual klei kodesh — leadership — I’ve ever known. The Yiddishkeit he shares to our community, and lives through his wife and daughters, is magnificent, and I marvel any time I’m privileged to be near him.”
“The halls of Shearith are alive with the sound of Cantor Zhrebker’s voice and we’re so blessed to enjoy his talents,” said Gordon’s wife Andi, a former music committee chair. “He takes his role so seriously and he is so much of the soul of our shul.”
Itzhak and Leah, Dr. Leah Zhrebker afterward, in 2009 pursuing a medical degree and now a physician specializing in hematology and medical oncology, are the parents of Liora (Ariel Kagedan), who is pursuing a master’s degree in social work and public health at Boston University; Hannah, who is pursuing a master’s in business analysis at the University of Maryland; and Devorah, a pre-med student at Maryland.
“This community has always been invested in our family and we’ve watched the respect everyone has always given to our father. As adults, we see and appreciate how many he has touched,” said Liora, speaking on her behalf and that of her sisters — all three former members of CSI’s youth choir. “Both of our parents have impacted us with how they speak through their actions, often behind the scenes.
“When it’s our time, on vacations, he relaxes and enjoys fishing and nature,” said Liora. “On the bimah, he transforms into becoming the hazzan. Music is his communication, his language and through which he always enhances tefillah.”
The success, for any clergy person, Zhrebker says, is the support of family.
“My family, and their always standing by me, means everything,” he said. “Leah only applied to UT Southwestern because this was our home. Of course she made it, and together we figured how the demands of my career, and her education, would not interrupt the lives of our children. They’re all incredible women and my success is my family’s success.”
In his two-plus decades at CSI, Zhrebker formed a music committee which built the Small-Waldman-Cohen Music Series hosting two to three programs each year. He’s created themed Kabbalat Shabbat services of Israeli music, Broadway, klezmer and pop tunes, the Beatles, Motown, Western, Carlebach tribute and Gospel spirit. He has recorded five albums for the congregation featuring music of Shabbat, Holy Days and weddings. He’s the core of the congregation’s Adult Choir, Children’s Choir and High Holy Day choir as well.
“There are almost no words to describe how seriously he takes his role including the great time, talent and absolute dedication,” CSI’s Rabbi Adam Roffman said of Zhrebker, also a conductor, arranger and composer. “Everything he does is a pious act — that’s just who he is. What he offers in his voice is a stand-in for the sacrifices of days gone by.”
For CSI’s Rabbi Shira Wallach, it is how he transforms prayer, “with one note,” she said, that touches her deeply. “He stops time with the memorial of ‘El Malei Rachamim’ and then, for a baby naming, there is an infinite moment of sweetness through his priestly benediction. His music elevates the moments of our lives.”
Zhrebker, who has appeared on radio and in television and movie productions and at synagogues around the world, has performed with the Russian ensemble Kalinka, the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Marvin Hamlisch, the string trio Les Ami and the Walden Piano Quartet.
He has attended the annual AIPAC conference each year, and he is devoted to the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, programs at the JCC and more.
He was raised at a time when being Jewish meant it was your heritage only observed in private, and so minimally at that, so every time he prays, it is with his whole neshama — his entire soul.
“When Cantor prays, you see it in his davening, as if he has a special connection with Hashem. Cantor is my mentor, special friend and a mensch with a heart of gold,” said event chair Dena Fein, who has helped plan and direct most of Zhrebker’s special events since 2001. “I studied with him for my (adult) bat mitzvah, and ever since, I have worked with him and the Music Committee to bring amazing programs to our community.”
“No” isn’t a word Zhrebker uses often either; he is always there to visit the ill, to help his fellow clergy and to aid anyone in need.
“What sets him apart is the level of professionalism, and the high expectations he has for himself and any tefillah experience he helps create or lead,” said CSI’s Rabbi Ari Sunshine. “The importance of getting it ‘just right’ and the comforting and meaningful experiences come from the expression of his connection to prayer.
“Hazzan Zhrebker is a shepherd of that process for anyone around him,” said Sunshine, “and, for that, we are all the more blessed.”