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Sunday, November 29, 2020

To Life, L’Chayim

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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. 

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