By DAVID BLOCK |
August 2, 2022 at 10:40 a.m.
For 31 straight years, Cantor Eliot Vogel’s melodically mesmerizing voice made him a Har Zion Temple mainstay.
Originally from Bloomfield, Conn., Vogel wanted a position at Har Zion in Penn Valley, even before he earned his cantorial degree from New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 1981. This stemmed from Vogel meeting Har Zion’s previous cantor, Isaac Wall, who held the post from 1944 to 1991. Wall was one of Vogel’s role models.
After graduating from JTS, Vogel was a cantor for ten years in South Orange, N.J. Then in 1991, he learned that Cantor Wall was retiring so he vied for the vacancy and secured it.
Since 1991, Vogel served as Har Zion’s cantor. But now, the 67-year-old Vogel will retire this fall. He did not give the exact date, but it will not be before November.
“I’ve enjoyed the pastoral work I’ve done here, but it’s now time to step away,” said Vogel.
While serving as Har Zion’s cantor, Vogel saw several rabbis and other members of the clergy come and go, yet he remained a Har Zion fixture.
When asked why he lasted so long, Vogel provided two explanations. He said jokingly: “When I first got here, I told people I had died and had gone to acoustical heaven. The rooms were well designed for sound.”
He then answered more seriously that from day one, he was impressed with Har Zion’s leadership.
He had rapport with the clergy and the congregation.
“I always wanted to break down walls between the position of clergy and congregant,” said Vogel. “I wanted to be as human, relatable, and as reachable as I possibly could.”
Cantor Vogel ‘s gift of making people feel welcome, helped him establish rapport with Har Zion’s current senior rabbi, Seth Haaz, who has held this position for four years.
“When I arrived at Har Zion, Cantor Vogel shared his deep appreciation for and awe of the rich legacy of Har Zion created through the dedicated partnership of clergy, staff, and volunteers,” said Rabbi Haaz. “Cantor Vogel possesses a devotion to the Har Zion community that comes only through decades of service, and I benefit each and every day from witnessing his love for the synagogue and for its congregants.”
According to Vogel, when he took over in 1991, rabbis and cantors throughout the U.S. were now allowing themselves to become more accessible to their congregations.
At the time, Har Zion’s former head rabbi, Gerald Wolpe, who served from 1969-1999, told Vogel that one of his teachers made him promise to NEVER let the congregants call him Gerry.
“Back then, there was supposed to have been a sense of awe, respect, and honor shown to the clergy,” said Vogel. He said that the clergy kept their distance.
“But that’s no longer operating so much as a positive like before,” said Vogel. In the same breath, the cantor emphasized that there needs to be some distance between congregants and clergy.
No doubt, whoever replaces Cantor Vogel might have a hard time filling his shoes, but their struggle might not be as rough as the one that he had when he first took Har Zion’s cantorial reins.
Vogel said that numerous members of the congregation, and Rabbi Wolpe went through a mourning period after Cantor Wall retired.
“After a couple years, people started telling me that they thought that they would never like another cantor, after Cantor Wall,” said Vogel.
Asked why he was stepping down, Vogel said:
“I’m keenly aware of the changes taking place in American Liberal Judaism. Change now seems to becoming ever more rapidly, so I thought it’s now time to turn the reins over to a younger person who might be more adept at meeting these changes.”
One example he gave pertained to people debating whether or not the Saturday morning services should be reduced from two and a half hours to a much shorter amount of time. Vogel also said that musical tastes changed.
“The new genre would not be mine,” said Vogel.
Vogel has fond Har Zion memories such as wheeling his baby daughter in her carriage onto the pulpit two months after he became the synagogue’s cantor.
“Last month, she got married at Har Zion,” said Vogel. “My family grew up here.”