To Life, L’Chayim
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
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
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
For more information about tickets to “Chai for Chayim,”
call Kehillat Israel at (310) 459-2328.
There was a point during the argument when the crowd seemed to clam up. The panelists were so passionate that it made everyone uncomfortable. As...
A couple of weeks ago, I had to do the seemingly unthinkable: take the popular video game Fortnite away from my 9-year-old son, Alexander. Like...
Most of us never have to deal with anti-Zionist activists protesting outside our homes or harassing us at our jobs. We can make a conscious...
The Talmud records yet another debate between House Hillel and House Shamai: How do we count the days of Hanukkah? Is it a countdown? Or...
If you’ve ever entertained the notion of pursuing something creative — singing, acting, painting — you’ve likely heard this well-intentioned advice: “Don’t quit your day...
On November 28, 2018, Marc Lamont Hill, a well-known anti-Israel activist, frequent CNN commentator and Temple University professor, who previously crowd-funded to help a terrorist...
Uwe Becker’s Facebook page might confuse followers into thinking he’s the mayor of an Israeli city. Almost every other post includes references to Israel. One...
Although Germany has developed a reputation as one of Israel’s strongest allies in the European Union, keynote speakers at the fifth Israel Congress recently held...
I have been deeply concerned about climate change since the 1980s. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the teacher’s lounge in the school...
Once again, it’s time to talk about Israel’s next elections. Earlier this week, two events made early elections — possibly in May — much more...
Don’t let Sruli and Mendy Portnoy, the eponymous duo behind Jerusalem-based band PORTNOY, fool you with their boy-band good looks and feel-good melodies. Acerbic lyrics...
Recent Congressional dealmaking may signal that a move to the center — a strengthening of bipartisanship — is gaining momentum. Four days before the start...
1. This light’s for Hanukkah … for a people who choose to begin our best of days with light. What special Jewish day doesn’t start with...
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it.”...
Editors note: This article contains spoilers regarding season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Michael Zegen has played good guys (“Rescue Me,” “Girls”), a gangster...
I’ve always thought that if more men understood how much women love to eat, every cooking class in the world would have a waiting list....
Moishe House, a program for Jewish young adults that has been growing steadily throughout the United States and internationally since its inception nearly 13 years...
“No Fortnite dances and no flossing!” joked one of the young adults running the Nachshon Minyan Hanukkah Celebration’s dreidel game table, where half a dozen...
As I entered the Beverly Hills home of Rachel Emquies Sheff and her husband, Neil Sheff, on a recent Sunday morning, the warm welcome of...
The sixth annual Red Star Ball held by American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) honored Magen David Adom’s paramedic heroes along with Steven Mizel, who...
A senior living residence with its quota of kvetching, aching and wheelchair-bound septuagenarians and octogenarians, is generally not the setting for an offbeat romantic film....
Bela Fleck, the banjo virtuoso, continues to take the instrument most closely identified with country and bluegrass into musical realms never before explored. And the...
Fire Coverage Thank you for your coverage of the recent fires in Northern and Southern California. I am struck by how good we humans are at...
Jack Miles is a man of many accomplishments; he’s probably best known as “God’s biographer.” Miles, a former Jesuit priest, is the recipient of the...
FRI DEC 7 [caption id="attachment_243104" align="aligncenter" width="1800"] Dr. Dee[/caption] A Motown Shabbat The soulful sounds of Motown reverberate inside the Kehillat Israel sanctuary on Hanukkah...
When it comes to giving gifts, whether for Hanukkah, birthdays or whatever occasion, I like to be creative with the wrapping rather than just plunking...
Israel Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has been a major force behind the ascent of the Jewish Home party, the third most powerful party in Israeli...
Gloria Katz, Oscar-Nominated Screenwriter, 76 Gloria Katz, who partnered with husband Willard Huyck and director George Lucas to write “American Graffiti,” died Nov. 25 —...