Jacob Agar’s story encompasses the fall of the Soviet Union, a singing grandfather and a guitarist from the band Twisted Sister.
And Agar, 28, who is Beth Sholom Congregation’s newest cantor, could tell you that story in a few different languages — he speaks Russian, Hebrew, German, Italian and French.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to give them what they want and I’ll be able to be creative and do new and interesting things and help the synagogue grow,” said Agar, who comes to Elkins Park by way of Rockland County, New York City, and Baku, Azerbaijan.
For Agar, who counts architecture among his many interests, there could not be a more appropriate match than Beth Sholom, a National Historic Landmark and home to a rich history of musically-inflected prayer, according to Senior Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin.
Agar joins a lineage that includes Cantor David Tillman, who served Beth Sholom for almost four decades, and Cantor Seymour Schwartzman, a much-lauded opera singer.
“The community has always had a really significant commitment to Jewish music and the power of Jewish music, and it’s something that’s always been a priority at this congregation,” Glanzberg-Krainin said. He and Rabbi Andrea Merow joined Agar for his first Shabbat on Aug. 1.
After Cantor Jeffery Weber left the synagogue last June, a committee led by then-President Jeffrey Gordon quickly found Agar, who was about to graduate from the H.L Miller Cantorial School at Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. The committee sought to find a cantor that could provide both musical uplift in prayer and instruction to the congregation. In Agar, Gordon said, it was clear that they had found their man.
“We felt that we couldn’t turn this guy down,” Gordon said.
Agar was born in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Months earlier, the Soviet Union had dissolved, leaving the Jews of Baku — a centuries-old community that had already faced varying levels of state repression over the years — in an uncertain place. Agar’s family, like most of the city’s Jews, left the country. Some went to Israel, and others to the United States. Agar’s family chose the latter and, when Agar was 10 months old, he became a Monsey resident.
It was only in high school that Agar came to singing. His grandfather, who died before he was born, was a talented singer, but never had the chance to become classically trained. Agar was fortunate enough to begin singing lessons when he was 15 or 16, right around the time that he started a band with some friends.
The band members, who included the son of Twisted Sister guitarist Eddie “Fingers” Ojeda, couldn’t agree on much. They never even settled on a name. But Agar, who sang for the short-lived group, got his first taste of music as a profession, writing some of his own songs and discovering the music that moved him. Namely, opera.
In high school, he studied Italian as part of his singing education, followed by Italian, French, German and, eventually, Hebrew. Though Agar developed an abiding love for Israel in Rockland County, religion had not yet struck a chord.
It was not until a chance encounter with famed cantor Jack Mendelson, that the cantorate seemed like an appealing option. After graduation, it suddenly felt like the only option.
“The reason that I transitioned from opera to the cantorate was because of my desire to do something more spiritual, and to contribute to the Jewish community,” Agar said.
A powerful experience singing “El Malei Rachamim” at his other grandfather’s funeral sealed the deal; he would dedicate his life to “heal with music” when he could, Agar said. Shortly thereafter, it was off to the H.L Miller Cantorial School.
“My goal,” Agar said, “is to give our generation the spiritual meaning at synagogue, to attract them and to make them connect to it to keep our tradition going.”