February 27, 2003
To Life, L’Chayim
Concert to sing the praises of Kehillat Israel's cantor.
It was his first pulpit as a cantor, a smallish shul up above Palisades High School. He was just 23.
Eighteen years later, Kehillat Israel, now the largest Reconstructionist synagogue in the United States, remains Chayim Frenkel's only pulpit, and he and the temple couldn't be happier.
On Tuesday night, Kehillat Israel (KI) will honor Frenkel with a gala concert and tribute, "Chai for Chayim," at UCLA's Royce Hall. Scheduled to appear are Billy Crystal, Bob Saget and singer-songwriter Dave Koz, all KI members; actress Tovah Feldshuh; the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, and cantors from around town and around the country.
Lynne Gordon DeWitt, one of the co-chairs for the event, said Frenkel had no trouble lining up a glittering array of talent for the program. "Chayim is beloved; he just asks, and people say yes," Gordon DeWitt said. "If he weren't a cantor, he'd be making a million dollars as a fundraiser."
Frenkel grew up in the Pico-Fairfax area, where his father, Uri Frenkel, was cantor for Judea Congregation on South Fairfax Avenue. With his mother, Shari, working as a kosher caterer, both parents were "servants of the Jewish community," Frenkel told The Journal, and "role models of what a mensch (good guy) should be."
In 1974, Uri Frenkel moved to what was then Maarev Temple in Encino (now Ner Maarav), and Frenkel became a Valley boy, attending Birmingham High School in Van Nuys -- after a day-school education -- and California State University Northridge. He was a youth leader in his father's synagogue and apprenticed there as a chazan (cantor) during his college years.
Although Frenkel didn't attend cantorial school, he had an illustrious set of teachers, studying chazzanut with Samuel Fordis, Allan Michelson and Samuel Kelemer, among the leading Conservative cantors of their day, along with his father, who died in 1995.
"Chayim has chazzones dripping out of his DNA," said Cantor Nathan Lam, one of Frenkel's later teachers.
At KI, Frenkel found the warmth and spirit he knew as a teenager at Maarev Temple. He told The Journal that when he turned up early for his first interview with KI's search committee, he had time to gaze at a large montage of photographs featuring temple events.
"I fell in love with the community, because you could see from the faces in the photos that the people in this temple were committed, family oriented," he said. "It was like coming back home."
Frenkel served one year with Rabbi Jack Bemporad, before Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben began his own long tenure with the congregation. Reuben and his wife, Didi, "taught me the skills to succeed as a community cantor," Frenkel said.
Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, KI's co-rabbi with Reuben since 1997, values Frenkel's verve and soulfulness. "He's a whirlwind of energy, a heart that has limitless love and compassion and a voice that truly channels the angels," she said.
It isn't difficult to find people who have nice things to say about Frenkel. "He's the sweetest person," said Lam. "If you're counted among his friends, and that's a lot of people, he'll never say no to you. And for a man of his age, he has made a great contribution to the world of Jewish music."
Much of that contribution has come from his many commissions of prayer settings and larger-scale works on Jewish themes. He has a special working relationship with Meir Finkelstein, who wrote an oratorio, "Liberation," about the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps that Frenkel produced in concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in 1995.
He is currently working with Finkelstein to expand Finkelstein's Jewish requiem, "Nishmat Tzedek" (A Righteous Soul), which was written and performed in 1993 in memory of Frenkel's brother, Tzvi. (A sister, Mira Winograd, lives in the Valley.) The project will include a book of photographs and a CD to be sent to families in Israel who have lost loved ones during the current intifada.
Frenkel, who lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Marsi, and two daughters, Mandi, 10, and Molli, 2, has warm personality, and he not only loves working with children but identifies with them. "When I started at 23, I was a child; now I'm 41, and I'm still a child," he said.
That quality has endeared him to adults and children alike and has let him bring enthusiasm to the most mundane aspects of cantorial work. He still gets excited about what for many cantors becomes an assembly-line process: training b'nai mitzvah and singing at their ceremonies.
"This is one of the big events of their lives," Frenkel said. "The day I sit on the bimah and don't sweat every maftir and every haftarah, that's the day I retire."
For Frenkel, his one-on-one connections at the temple, even as KI has grown from 240 to 1,100 households during his 18 years, are what make his work joyful. "What's most important to me at KI is the relationships I share," Frenkel said. "I really owe my life and my successes to the congregation."
For more information about tickets to "Chai for Chayim," call Kehillat Israel at (310) 459-2328.