By Michael Sudhalter
It didn’t take long for Paul Dorman to pick up on the sense of community at Congregation Ahavath Sholom.
Dorman, a professional cantor for nearly three decades, was serving in a temporary role at the Conservative Fort Worth synagogue, starting in March.
He was leading minyan at 6:55 each morning and, two weeks in, a congregant said, “let’s go for some breakfast.”
The congregant asked Dorman, a New Jersey native who’s spent much of his adult life in Los Angeles, how he liked Fort Worth.
Dorman responded positively, but he did find time to kvetch about the $5,000 charge for a three-month car rental agreement.
The two men left the restaurant and headed to DFW International Airport, where they dropped off the rental car. The next stop was the congregant’s ranch.
“I have two pickup trucks — one’s at the ranch, and that’s the one you’re taking,” the congregant told Dorman.
That friendly welcome has been consistent with Dorman’s experience on the western edge of the Metroplex.
And it’s one reason why he’s excited to have signed a contract to remain at Ahavath Sholom through at least 2026.
“Everyone has been incredibly nice to me,” Dorman said. “This is where I want to be. I can be creative and do things that are different and have the support of the community, which you don’t always get. The temple president said he’s swinging for the fences and the congregation is really taking it to heart.”
Dorman’s formative years and his first career are paradoxes vis-à-vis one another, yet they’ve distinctly shaped what he’s defined as an amazing cantorial career.
Dorman was born and raised in Paterson — the third largest city in New Jersey. His father’s roots in the northern New Jersey city dated back to the 19th century, especially among its Conservative Jewish community.
By happenstance, Dorman’s immediate family became involved in the city’s smaller Orthodox community.
Dorman’s parents were searching for a good school for their children. They landed on an Orthodox yeshiva within walking distance. It was a quality school and there wouldn’t need to be a second locale for Hebrew school.
The Dormans gradually became more integrated within the rules of the Orthodox community. At a young age, Dorman became well-versed in Torah and Talmud. He began davening in shul at age 8.
When it came time for high school, Dorman attended Yeshiva University High School in New York City. The two cities are closer than Fort Worth and Weatherford, yet the combination of public transportation and extensive traffic resulted in a three-hour roundtrip daily commute.
Dorman dutifully attended the school, but most of his friends were Conservative and Reform Jewish teenagers who enjoyed listening to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Doors.
When it was time to spread his wings, Dorman chose Connecticut College in New London — about 140 miles northeast.
The school had a strong fine arts program and Dorman decided to take an acting class.
It led to roles on campus — in plays and musicals. Dorman became so enamored with acting that he eventually enrolled in the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City.
Dorman became a professional actor, writer, director and producer. His work included Off-Broadway plays, television shows and films. He was married to “Cheers” actress Bebe Neuwirth for seven years, appeared on an episode of “Murphy Brown” and collaborated with a young Stanley Tucci.
During this time in his life, Dorman said he was not practicing Judaism.
The ups and downs of a career actor were challenging. Dorman’s mother encouraged him to work as an overflow cantor for the High Holidays. He resisted the suggestion.
Then, he worked on a soap opera on CBS and wondered what it all meant.
“I went to acting school and performed in all of these plays,” Dorman said. “What was this about? I needed something more out of my life.”
Dorman gave that maternal advice some more consideration and decided to follow it. That was in 1996, and Dorman hasn’t looked back. He became ordained as a cantor through the Cantors Assembly and is grateful for the spiritual reawakening.
“It felt really comfortable,” Dorman said. “I didn’t have an epiphany. It’s like putting on a pair of shoes you like. I had an opportunity to experience Judaism on my terms.”
Dorman said he was able to merge the Judaic knowledge of his youth with the performance aspects of his entertainment career to excel as a cantor.
“It’s very fulfilling,” Dorman said. “How lucky am I to get up in the morning and do something I want to do? And I’ve had that most of my life. I’m incredibly happy that I’m a cantor. I’m incredibly happy to be here in Fort Worth, with this community behind me.”
After working briefly for a synagogue in Dayton, Ohio, he moved to Los Angeles, where he was mentored by the renowned duo of Cantor Meir Finklestein and Rabbi David Wolpe.
Temple started a “Friday Night Live” where nearly 2,000 congregants would show up to listen to Jewish music, often with a pop or rock beat.
Dorman is a songwriter who’s had songs recorded by cantors throughout the country and at least one internationally.
He never became ordained as a rabbi but had the responsibility of running a synagogue when rabbis have been on leave, or if his shul was missing one for a period of time.
“I don’t give sermons, I speak,” Dorman said. “I don’t teach classes, I run sessions.”
Dorman sees the connection between secular music and spirituality.
“Songs are like prayers,” Dorman said. “They are expressions from your heart — something you yearn for, something you really want.”