Temple B’nai Chaim Cantor Jon Sobel will mark 25 years of service to the congregation and community with a special service on Friday, June 5. A special musical service called “House of Song” (in Hebrew, “Beit Shirah”), at 7 p.m. will honor Sobel’s contributions to the religious and musical life of the temple.
“It’s always gratifying to be among friends and have people take the time out to recognize something we’ve been doing for such a long time together,” Sobel told The Bulletin on Tuesday. “It’s wonderful to celebrate all the good years that I’ve had here.”
Originally from Cedar Grove, N.J., Sobel began leading music for Jewish worship services while an undergraduate at Yale University in New Haven. He was also a member of the Yale Whiffenpoofs and a soloist with the Yale Glee Club. He earned his bachelor of science degree in computer science in 1986, and became Temple B’nai Chaim’s cantor in 1989. Sobel and his family have lived in Redding since 1998.
Unlike the role of the rabbi, a Jewish scholar who is appointed as the community’s religious leader, the primary responsibility of a cantor (in Hebrew, “hazzan”), is to lead the congregation in chanted and sung prayer and to inspire and guide the congregation’s religious experience through music. In addition to his role in leading weekly worship and holiday services, and in officiating at life-cycle events (such as baby namings, weddings, and funerals), Sobel also runs the music program at the temple’s thriving religious school. He is an enthusiastic teacher of traditional liturgy and a wide range of contemporary Jewish music.
“The opportunity to pray together with the community and lead the community in prayer is a sacred responsibility,” Sobel said. “It’s something I take very seriously. It’s also teaching the adults and children about our music and our experience, and exposing them to different varieties of Jewish worship.”
Over the years, Sobel has worked with five of the six rabbis who have served the temple since its founding in 1976. He has officiated at approximately 580 child and adult bar and bat mitzvahs and has formed and led multi-generational bands, classical chamber groups, folk groups, and choirs. He is a mainstay of various local interfaith services hosted over many years in Fairfield County.
When asked why he became a cantor, Sobel explained, “I have always connected spiritually to God via music.” He frequently sang in the synagogue where he grew up, and for a number of years served as a soloist in various synagogues in the New York area. He said the purpose is to “connect us to God. Singing is one of the ways for us to connect to God. In our lives things get very small and mundane. Music is how we can quiet our rational selves and awaken our spiritual selves.”
After many years of expanding his expertise in Jewish music and Torah trope (the interpretation of ancient markings to chant the verses of the Five Books of Moses), in 2005 he was accepted into the cantorial program at Hebrew Union College in New York and earned cantorial certification by the College and the American Conference of Cantors in 2009. A man of many talents, he also serves full time as director of Systems and Data Integration at Yale and has continued his association with vocal music there by working periodically with Magevet, the Yale Jewish student a cappella group.
Sobel has never had any doubts about Temple B’nai Chaim being where he belongs. He said, “It was first a home to me, then a home to me and my wife, and now to my whole family. It’s a special community and it’s just our home. I started commuting from Manhattan, then eventually got married, moved up there, and had kids.”
As described by one congregant, “When Cantor Sobel expresses his prayers through singing, he reaches moments of transcendence that are palpable … Temple B’nai Chaim has been blessed with an extraordinary cantor.”
The temple is at 82 Portland Avenue in Georgetown.