The bulk of Cantor Mark Elson’s job description entails, of course, singing. But in his 33 years at Shir Ami in Newtown, Elson has done so much more.
“Anything that the synagogue needs to get done, he’ll do,” Rabbi Joel Simon said. “He wants to see this place succeed.”
From leading the Bar Mitzvah program to assembling video equipment and stacking chairs, Elson has left his mark. The synagogue will need to find a new utility player. Elson’s last day is June 30, and on June 1-2 the congregation will celebrate his legacy.
“He’s a real mensch,” former synagogue president Alan Sheinberg said.
Elson knew he wanted to be a cantor from an early age. He started singing in Hebrew while preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and kept at it afterward, offering to blow the shofar and lead services at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, Conn.
After graduating from high school, Elson attended Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and completed the five-year cantorial program in 1977. He stayed at the school for two more years to attain certification as a religious school director. He worked at temples in Westbury, N.Y., Nashville, Tenn., and Olympia Fields, Ill., before ending up at Shir Ami in 1985.
“I was looking for a change,” Elson said. “The congregation in Olympia Fields was older, the area was beginning to decline a bit as far as the Jewish population, and so I felt I needed to make a move.”
In Shir Ami — which translates to “song of the people” — he walked into a bustling, youthful synagogue with a congregation eager to match his energy and passion for music. In addition to his cantorial duties, he guided the Hebrew school for 17 years before taking over the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.
But it’s in front of congregations that Elson has shined brightest.
He’s borrowed from the Jewish camping movement and the Jewish youth movement, interspersing his traditional singing with elements of folk and rock, even strumming some chords on his guitar at times. He leads a choir of about 25 people, ceding the spotlight to others.
“He’s taught me a lot of new music,” said Sheinberg, who is also a choir member. “Some of it has made me reach beyond what I thought I can do, and he’s given me chance to do an occasional solo. I don’t know that I would’ve done that before.”
He’s also contributed on the more spiritual side of things, presiding over funerals and weddings alike. He offers comfort to congregants in the hospital and an ear to those who’ve lost loved ones.
And when Simon joined Shir Ami about three years ago, Elson was “my rabbi,” Simon said.
Early into his tenure, Simon welcomed his first child into the world. Last year, his mother died. Elson was there, in moments of both happiness and heartache, by Simon’s side.
For Elson, his impending retirement is bittersweet. He’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife and plans to live half the year in Florida. He also intends to visit friends in California and Arizona, and dive into some hobbies he hasn’t had time to pursue.
“My golf game is terrible,” he said with a chuckle.
At Shir Ami, there’s no doubt his presence will be missed. Simon said Elson’s replacement, Rachel Kohlbrenner, will walk into a role that’s been redefined by a cantor with a larger vision.
“For him, it’s not about being up front. It’s not about his voice being heard,” Simon said. “It’s about creating an environment in which music can elevate the community.”