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Sacred Music

Burke resident honored for 32 years of service as cantor.

It's something of a coincidence that Sidney Rabinowitz’s initials in Hebrew spell out the word for "song." Throughout his life, he said, music and faith have stood out as defining factors.

"The whole concept of music in the Jewish service is to instill a desire for prayer, interpret the prayer though music and to get the congregation to participate," said Rabinowitz. After 32 years serving as a cantor at Temple Beth El, a conservative synagogue in Stamford, Conn., Rabinowitz was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music from the Jewish Theological Seminary March 9 in New York City.

Now a Burke resident, Rabinowitz's first brush with music came in childhood when his father would take him to cantor concerts and services in their hometown of Orange, N.J. He joined his first choir at age 8, and as a college student in 1952, traveled to Israel with fellow college choir members to sing.

"Israel was a very young state then and did not have very major concert halls. So very often, we would concretize in a valley as people sat on the hillside and listened to us," he said. Rabinowitz studied for five years at the Jewish Theological Seminary, graduating with a degree in sacred music and the title of hazzan, the Hebrew word for cantor. He served in a small congregation in Montclair, N.J., and in 1970, ended up at Temple Beth El in Stamford, where he stayed until 2002.

AS A CANTOR, Rabinowitz had an important role in the synagogue. In Judaism, he said, the cantor and rabbi work side by side leading the congregation. Aside from guiding the congregation in prayer and song, the cantor often acts as a musical director and teacher. Rabinowitz directed four different choirs at Temple Beth El and undertook the duties of bar and bat mitzvah preparation.

"It was a seven-day-a-week job," said Rabinowitz. "You deal with the joys of people and their sorrows." For Rabinowitz, working with people was the best part of being a cantor, while the most challenging part was keeping track of his chanting and the music during the service.

Rabinowitz estimates preparing about 1,500 young men and women for their bar and bat mitzvahs. He has seen the full circle of life, many times presiding over the same congregant’s naming ceremony, bar or bat mitzvah, and wedding, and later, serving at the naming ceremony for their child. Rabinowitz thrived at working with young people, he said, and developed good relationships with his students.

"These relationships have existed to the present day," he said. "[My students] are calling upon me even here, to return to Connecticut to participate in life cycle events."

"[Rabinowitz] endeared all students and adults to come back and participate in other venues when asked," said Mark Lapine, past president of Temple Beth El, speaking from Connecticut. "You didn’t have to have a good voice, you didn’t have to be truly educated, he brought you around." Rabinowitz was not afraid to call at any hour to ask someone to participate in an event or to go over music lessons, said Lapine.

RABINOWITZ’S DUTIES took him into the community as well. A member of the Board of Trustees of Jewish Family Service, Rabinowitz produced a number of concerts to benefit the organization. For over 30 years, he conducted a Passover seder at the Jewish Community Center in Stamford for over 200 people. He was also a member of the Council of Churches and Synagogues, and with them acted as artistic director for a 1991 interfaith concert, "A Celebration of Choir." For the concert, said Rabinowitz, he directed 250 singers in songs that included a special selection by composer Alice Parker. In 1995, he was the first Jewish clergy to receive the "Clergy of the Year" honor by the Council of Churches and Synagogues.

One of Rabinowitz’s proudest accomplishments, however, was a giant wedding ceremony he undertook under the auspices of Jewish Family Services. Rabinowitz heard about a number of new Russian Jewish immigrants who had not been able to practice their faith in their country, and so had not married in a traditional Jewish wedding. It was 11 couples total, he said, and Rabinowitz brought in a live Jewish band along with 11 rabbis and 11 chuppahs, or wedding canopies, which he lined up along the altar at Temple Beth El. The couples each had their own traditional ceremony, with a catered reception following, he said.

"It was quite an afternoon," said Rabinowitz.

HOWEVER, IN 2002, Rabinowitz decided to retire from Temple Beth El and, with wife Sondra, move closer to his daughter and three grandchildren in Springfield. It was difficult parting from a community that had been "like family," he said, but he still returns for a week or so at a time to conduct weddings, naming ceremonies and funerals, and services at nursing homes.

In Northern Virginia, Rabinowitz also conducts services once a month with the Jewish community in Fort Belvoir, and volunteers as the Jewish clergy for Capital Hospice in Northern Virginia.

"He is always going back up to Connecticut," said Pat Gauthier, executive director of Ecumenical Community Helping Others. Rabinowitz, who volunteers as a food purchaser for ECHO, has found another way to serve in his new community as well, she said.

"He has a very impressive résumé, and we are delighted to have him helping us," she said.

According to Lapine, the lessons Rabinowitz taught his students over the years will always stay with them.

"He’s a caring, giving individual, who is a perfectionist in what he does and likes to pass it on to students and anyone else he works with," said Lapine.