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Thursday
Sep132012

STANDING 
IN PRAYER BEFORE THE KING OF KINGS

Every year, before the Yomim Nora’im, they pack their bags and leave their neighborhood shul. They are baalei t’filla who give honor to Hashem with their voices. * We spoke with three Lubavitcher chazanim-baalei t’filla to hear about the world of t’filla and chazanus, about how they prepare for the role of shliach tzibbur, how they feel when they stand up there with their backs to us, and how they feel about leaving Crown Heights as thousands pour into the community.

In Lubavitch there were never chazanim, but there were baalei t’filla. The difference between them is significant. In shuls and battei midrash, especially Chassidishe ones, they looked for baalei t’filla for the Yomim Nora’im; those with good voices who can represent the tzibbur and lift up their t’fillos to Heaven.

Before the Yomim Nora’im, I spoke with three baalei t’filla who daven for the tzibbur on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. R’ Moshe Adler is a well-known chazan who has been davening for years in various shuls. In recent years, he has been davening in the Anshei Sfard (aka the Sephardic Shul) in Boro Park. I also spoke to the baalei t’filla twins, R’ Mordechai and Meir Ziegelboim (my older brothers). R’ Mordechai (Motti) davens by the shliach R’ Dov Drizin in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. R’ Meir davens by the shliach R’ Yosef Yitzchok Geisinsky in Great Neck, Long Island.

FIRST TIME 
BEFORE THE AMUD

The first time, when his stomach is churning, is always an experience that sets the stage. It’s not as fun as it may seem. His hands grasp the edges of the amud, his eyes are fixed on the words so as not to get confused, and he tries to sing with his voice just right, all this while his heart is pounding.

“I was the 16 the first time,” said R’ Mordechai Ziegelboim. “I was in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lud. One day, at the beginning of Elul, the mashgiach R’ Butman motioned to me to come to his office. I wondered what I had done wrong, for I did not remember anything in particular that would have warranted attention.

“I followed him. The door to his office was closed. He looked at me a moment and said, ‘Tuck your shirt in so you look presentable.’ I found that odd, for since when does a mashgiach in a Chabad yeshiva insist that a talmid’s shirt always be tucked in? But I listened to him and then he opened the door to his office. A man was sitting there whom I did not know.

“R’ Butman introduced us and the man got straight to the point. ‘I am the director of a senior home here in Lud. Most of the seniors are interested in davening on the Yomim Nora’im. We need a chazan. Would you come and daven for us?’ He told me he’d pay $200.

“I don’t know what surprised me more, the invitation to be the chazan or the money, but I immediately agreed without thinking whether I was fit for the position. I was to daven twice on Rosh HaShana with Musaf on both days and Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur. Nothing about Musaf on Yom Kippur. I agreed.

“Today, when I think about it, I see how it was all Hashgacha Pratis. If I had been asked to daven Musaf on Yom Kippur, I would not have agreed. That seemed way too much, since while the chazan fasts his throat is parched and in addition he needs to stand for hours, but since I didn’t know, I agreed.

“Of course, on Rosh HaShana I got permission from the hanhala of yeshiva to leave in the middle of Shacharis so I could walk over to the home. On Yom Kippur, I stayed in yeshiva, which was practically empty for Bein HaZ’manim, and I went to daven Kol Nidrei. The next day, I remained in yeshiva and davened Musaf with a small minyan of balabatim from the neighborhood.

“That night, after the fast, I took a bus to pick up my money. As soon as I walked into the man’s house I felt something was amiss. To my utter surprise, the man was very upset. He asked, ‘Why didn’t you come today? We waited and waited. The ladies were afraid something had happened to you.’

“I innocently responded, ‘What are you saying? We did not discuss Musaf! You didn’t say a word about it! That’s why I didn’t come.’

“He said, ‘There’s no such thing. Whoever davens Kol Nidrei is the one who davens Musaf. Everyone knows that,’ he fumed. I later learned that this was true, but I was a kid and had no idea. ‘What shall I do now?’ he asked.

“He finally got up and began counting out money. I think he gave me something like $120. I left feeling quite despondent. That was my first attempt.”

Mordechai’s twin brother Meir’s first experience as a chazan took place later when he lived in Passaic. There was a large shul in the center of town called Ahavas Yisroel. It was a Conservative shul that had people attending on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and they used a microphone. The shul had hundreds of seats.

“The congregants got older or moved away and the shul was nearly empty. In order to save the place, the Orthodox took it over. On the Yomim Nora’im of the first year, I was asked to be the chazan and that was my trial by fire.

“It was a shul that did not belong to a particular k’hilla. Among the people was a man from the old days who had davened there for years. He was a short man and hard of hearing, who was used to the microphone. During the davening I heard him whisper loudly, ‘This young fellow has a strong voice and I can hear every word. We don’t need a microphone.’ To me, that was the biggest compliment and it gave me a sense of relief. The k’hilla had passed another sort of test in the positive transformation of the shul.”

R’ Moshe Adler also started quite young. He was living in the Shomer Emunim neighborhood of Yerushalayim at the time. The first time he served as chazan was when he was 16 and had just started learning in yeshiva g’dola (zal/beis midrash). In 5740 he was asked to be the chazan in the big shul in Teveria. He went there once a month as well as on the Yomim Nora’im. At age 18 he traveled to the US where he was asked to be chazan for the Ohev Tzedek congregation in Pennsylvania.

His family was not Chabad and at this point in his life he started visiting 770. He was actually going back to his roots, for his grandfather, R’ Moshe Lerner, was a pillar of the Beis Yisroel Chabad shul in Yerushalayim. He continued learning in 770 and was helped by Lubavitcher relatives who lived in the neighborhood.

A few years later, he was asked to be chazan in the German shul in Washington Heights led by Rabbi Mordechai Schneiderman, where they were very pleased with him. The fact that he remained their chazan for 23 years shows how beloved he was. When I asked him what made him stay there so long when chazanim often move around, he shrugged and said, “I was comfortable there and wasn’t looking for variety.”

KNOWING BEFORE WHOM YOU STAND

Chazanim move around for many reasons, whether it be a desire for change or wanting to move up to bigger, more prominent shuls, which comes along with a bigger salary. The nusach can be different as are the people and style.

“Over the years, I have been a chazan mainly in the US since I moved here when I was young,” said R’ Motti Ziegelboim. “I davened for a number of years in Riverdale in the Bronx. I davened in various k’hillos throughout the years, except for a three year break when I davened at the K’sav Sofer shul of Rabbi Nissan Mangel in Crown Heights.”

When R’ Motti received an offer to serve as chazan for R’ Geisinsky in Great Neck, he accepted it.

“Most of the congregation is Persian, so I was asked to daven with the Sephardic pronunciation but in Nusach Ari, and to use Sephardic niggunim in the davening so people would feel comfortable.

“I was there for five years until I became chazan in Summerlin, Las Vegas where R’ Yisroel Schanowitz had just completed building a new shul. It was huge and gorgeous with the women’s section in an upper gallery.

“I have since become a chazan for R’ Drizin in New Jersey.”

R’ Meir Ziegelboim also moved around. He was chazan at the old B’nai Abraham synagogue in Philadelphia, which is near Independence Hall. This shul has hundreds of seats and is over a hundred years old. It used to be a Reform temple and it became an Orthodox shul when hardly anyone attended the temple. The shliach is R’ Yochanan Goldman.

“I began davening there when the shul became Orthodox. It was a few days after the 9/11 tragedy and all of America was religiously inspired and flocking to their houses of worship. Jews, too, came en masse to shul. This shul was full. It hadn’t seen a crowd that large in many years.”

Since the shul had just become Orthodox, how did you know who the crowd would consist of and how to prepare?

“The shliach told me that he had no idea who would be coming and he asked me to be prepared for any scenario. In the end, it was an American crowd of all ages and they all enjoyed it very much.”

R’ Meir remained there for a number of years until he replaced his brother Motti in Great Neck. R’ Meir describes the job as complicated and challenging. The machzor is Chabad, but he needs to include tunes and songs from the Persian community.

“It’s a fine balance between preserving Nusach Chabad while making the davening accessible to all so they all feel comfortable. From my father a”h I absorbed the idea that a shliach tzibbur is a shliach of the tzibbur and not of himself. I’m not doing a concert. If the tzibbur is disconnected, then the chazan is like a captain without a ship. ‘You need to feel out the congregation and find a way to uplift them, not just that they should hear you but they should take part in the davening,’ is what he told me.

“I daven with the Sephardic pronunciation and use tunes that they know. When there are piyutim that are like a dialogue between the chazan and the kahal and I hear them participating, even if they don’t always understand the words, they feel part of the t’filla. As a shliach tzibbur, that is worth everything.”

One of the special moments on the Yomim Nora’im is during Tashlich.

“The Chabad shul is located in a pretty place, surrounded by woods and a stunning lake. In the afternoon, everyone goes to the lake and the tzibbur recites Sephardic piyutim which I learned and everyone sings. Those are uplifting moments at the lake.”

In recent years, R’ Moshe Adler is the chazan and baal t’filla at the Anshei Sfard shul in Boro Park. It is a huge, old shul with about 700 seats.

“Boro Park has numerous shuls, but back then, a hundred years ago, there was one big shul, Beth-El, where the famous chazanim Mordechai Hershman a”h, Moshe Koussevitzky a”h and Moshe Stern sang. When Chassidim came from Europe in the previous century and wanted to daven Nusach Sfard, there was no shul for them, so they founded this shul which was called, simply, Anshei Sfarad for the nusach they used even though they all came from Eastern Europe. The king of the chazanim, Yossele Rosenblatt, davened in this shul for two years. I feel that it’s a great privilege to stand where the legendary Yossele stood.”

R’ Adler looks Lubavitch, and although he doesn’t officially represent Chabad, people don’t make that distinction.

“People really relate to the Chabad niggunim that I use in the davening, whether on the Yomim Nora’im or on special Shabbasos. Singing Chabad niggunim gives me a good feeling when I am not with my usual k’hilla. I try to include Chabad niggunim whenever possible.”

Although R’ Adler has a particularly loud voice, he does not see himself as a chazan as much as a baal t’filla who davens with a “Chassidishe nusach.”

“I stand before the amud with the feeling of responsibility of bringing all the t’fillos to Hashem. When I daven, I don’t just think about the singing but about the meaning of the words, at the very least, and I try to concentrate on them. People sense this, Boruch Hashem, and I will get feedback from people who tell me that even though they don’t know the meaning of the words of the piyutim, they understand the content because of the niggunim.”

R’ Motti Ziegelboim explains, “The difference between a chazan and a baal t’filla is that a chazan is focused primarily on his voice, since his reputation is being judged by the crowd. A baal t’filla puts more heart into the davening than his voice. From that perspective, I consider myself a baal t’filla and not a chazan. I don’t repeat words and I don’t stop in the middle of the t’filla to give a concert.”

You and R’ Moshe Adler live in Crown Heights. How does it feel to leave Crown Heights for the Yomim Nora’im when you see thousands of people coming to be with the Rebbe?

R’ Motti Ziegelboim: “Leaving Crown Heights is routine for me, though I must say that when I leave for the Yomim Nora’im and see the many guests who made the effort to come, I feel a bit bad. But as we were taught, every person needs to be in the place where he accomplishes the most. If he remains where he wants to be and not where he and his talents are needed, he is betraying his role.

“What I can say is that except for the years that I davened in Crown Heights, I always davened by shluchim of the Rebbe.”

R’ Moshe Adler: “It’s really not easy. When I was a chazan in Washington Heights and had to be there for Sukkos too, I noted in my contract that I would be with the Rebbe for Simchas Torah. I wasn’t going to forgo that, certainly not when I am relatively close, in Boro Park.

“I DID NOT FEEL DESERVING”

R’ Adler often davens for the amud in the Beis Binyamin shul on Montgomery Street. Surprisingly, although he has been living in Crown Heights for about thirty years, he had not davened for the amud in 770 until so recently.

Why?

“I was afraid. I felt undeserving to daven where the Rebbe is.”

Is there room for professional advancement?

“Definitely. Chazanus is not my only parnasa. During the week I work for a living, and there are stresses which effect my voice. I can sense it immediately. There are only a few chazanim who don’t do anything else but sing. They need peace of mind in order not to wear down their voice. During the week they train and practice. It’s not at all just about going over to the amud and opening one’s mouth.

“Maybe it’s time to grow some more. Thank G-d, He gave me the tools and the ability and there is definitely room to develop them further in order to give honor to Hashem with my throat/voice.”

How long does it take to prepare for t’fillos?

R’ Meir Ziegelboim: “My regular job is in the textile business. That’s the reason I travel a lot by car and plane. Unfortunately, one of the busy seasons is Elul, which is why I am almost always on the road in Elul. I sit on the plane and open a Machzor and look at the words and learn them, getting ‘into’ it. That’s the only way I can feel ready.

“A connection with the words is projected by the shliach tzibbur to the congregation. Many can’t explain all the words, but people will say, ‘You made me feel, for the first time, the power of the words.’ I consider it a special privilege to know the nusach well and to uplift the k’hilla, enabling them to feel the t’filla in a more pure, elevated way. It’s not chazanus, but a shlichus which Hashem gave me.”

EXPERIENCES ON 
THE ROAD

Going from k’hilla to k’hilla enables them to meet new people and have interesting experiences:

R’ Motti Ziegelboim: “One of the special experiences I’ve had took place three years ago. I was with our father R’ Eliezer Ziegelboim a”h in the hospital, Hadassah Medical Center at Ein Kerem, for the Yomim Nora’im. When the director found out that I am a chazan, I was asked to fill that role. The davening there was on a completely different level, and not just because my father was there and was listening to me daven the t’fillos of the Yomim Nora’im for the first time.

“The t’fillos took place in the shul with the famous Chagall windows (see box). The congregation consisted of people from all walks of life, ages, backgrounds and levels of religiosity. I davened each t’filla with a different accent/pronunciation so all would feel comfortable. Although I did not get paid that year, the experience of davening with my father is one I would not sell for any money.

“Many months later, I met people who had heard me during the t’fillos in the hospital and they told me how moved they had been. My father was suffering greatly at the time. When I told him about what people said, he smiled. It was a moment of nachas amidst all of his suffering.”

R’ Meir Ziegelboim: “One year, Rosh HaShana fell out on Thursday and Friday and was followed by Shabbos. On Shabbos, we sat there at the seuda with the shliach and some mekuravim. During the meal, each person said a few words about himself.

“When they wanted me to sing something, I sang the popular song, ‘Just One Shabbos.’ When I finished, a woman emotionally said, ‘I live alone in the neighborhood, surrounded by mostly Christian neighbors. They are very nice and they help me out. They often try to convince me to go with them to church. I don’t have much knowledge of Judaism, but when I was sitting here tonight and I heard that song, and I’m surrounded by people who love me, and it’s all so beautiful, the people, the food, and even the tablecloths and candles, it brings me back to where I really belong. I can be their good neighbor, but I am Jewish and I belong here and I will remain here.’

“One year, one of the mekuravim sat down next to me and said, ‘You sat next to me two years ago and you said something that changed my life.’ I said I was happy to hear that and that I hoped I changed his life for the better. He said, ‘Of course, for the better. I’ve married since then. Although I don’t look Lubavitch, it was a Lubavitcher wedding with the chuppa at 770. Back then, when I met you, I was frustrated and at a loss. I am so happy I met you then.’

“I couldn’t help but ask, ‘What did I say that changed your life?’ He smiled but did not answer. I respected his wishes and till today, I know that I helped change someone’s life but I don’t know what I said.

“My shlichus is not only at the amud but also at the meals, where the atmosphere is less formal. Often, that which doesn’t happen in the shul can be accomplished in a friendly talk at the table. These stories are definitely encouraging. They support the feeling that this is also a shlichus.”

 

THE YOMIM NORA’IM ON THE TRAIN OF LIFE

R’ Motti Ziegelboim relates:

My father’s hospitalization extended over the Yomim Nora’im of 5770. The shul in Hadassah is beautiful. During the week it is locked and serves as a museum, which is visited by tourists and donors. In 1960, Marc Chagall, the famous artist, designed twelve stained glass windows, each of which represents one tribe. The work took Chagall and his assistants two years to execute, as they applied a special technique that gives the viewer a three-dimensional feeling.

The inside of the shul is covered with marble from floor to ceiling. The walls are partially covered with plaques in honor of those who made donations. The shul is square and the center is sunken with the amud for the chazan on it to fulfill the verse “From the depths I call out to You, G-d.”

It was there, at the shul, that I understood the significance of the expression “the train of life.” It was Shabbos Shuva and the Torah reading had just ended. We had added to the usual seven aliyos in order to allow the new fathers whose wives had just given birth a chance to make a Mi Sh’Beirach. There were women who had given birth to one baby, to twins, and there were even triplets that Shabbos. One of the fathers, from Yerushalayim, who had come to the hospital on Friday night, told me that his wife had just given birth to their sixteenth child.

There was a small commotion and one of the men in charge motioned to me to come over. “Can you translate for him?” he asked me.

There was a man, his eyes reddened by tears, who barely spoke Hebrew. He said he was a baal t’shuva from California, and his young wife, with whom he had come the night before to the hospital, had died a half an hour before. He came to ask what he needed to do as far as the laws of mourning were concerned.

“Today is her 29th birthday. We were married less than two years ago and we have an eleven month old baby. What will I do without her?”

The train of life. Some get on board and some get off.

***

Yom Kippur 5770.

Some of the people who were with us on Rosh HaShana were no longer there. Some were released from the hospital while others passed on. The prayer of U’nesaneh Tokef takes on additional meaning when recited in a hospital.

New fathers came to shul on Yom Kippur too, but the wailing heard early in the morning from one of the rooms and the covered bed that silently passed through the corridor let us know that another one had gotten off the train. That day, I did no vocal acrobatics when it came to “… How many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time … Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer …”

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