Longtime Cantor Sidney Karpo Dies at 93


Cantor Sidney Karpo, whose 55-year career began in 1952 and spanned two organizations and hundreds of students, died Jan. 18. He was 93.

Karpo spent 11 years at the Yeadon Jewish Community Center, then was installed as the cantor of Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel (now part of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim) in 1963, where he served for the next 44 years.

In a 2007 Jewish Exponent article about his retirement, Karpo, who sang in his South Philadelphia Hebrew school’s junior choir, said he knew he had a good voice, but never dreamed of being a cantor. It was his late wife of 71 years, Sylvia, who convinced him to do it.

“I could have been anything,” said Karpo, the youngest of 10 children of a fruit huckster and a mother who lost her sight by the time he was born. “My wife is a very musical person, and I’d sing her songs. So she talked me into it.”

Daughter Lynn Karpo-Lantz said she believes her father, who studied with noted cantor Moishe Oysher, was gifted with such a strong voice to compensate for his mother’s blindness.

Daughter Shelia Banner said her father possessed a dramatic tenor that made the words he davened meaningful.

“He had a passionate voice — a cry,” she said. “His high notes were glorious.”

Karpo had a love of teaching that many of his former students never forgot. Years after bar and bat mitzvahs, his one-time pupils checked in with him, often asking him to preside at their weddings.

Karpo-Lantz recalled her father setting up a table outside the Hebrew school classrooms so his charges could have cookies, doughnuts and chocolate milk before they started.

“He made learning fun,” son-in-law Dr. Ronald Banner said. “Education was one of the most important things in his life. The concept of how to live a Jewish life … he instilled in his bar and bat mitzvah students by his daily activities.”

Shelia Banner said her father was especially skilled at working with students not particularly interested in the bar and bat mitzvah process.

“He helped them understand what the bar mitzvah would mean to them and in the future,” she said.

“He gave them confidence they could do it,” Karpo-Lantz said.

Aside from his duties at Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel, Karpo served for a time as president of the Philadelphia Region Cantors Assembly. He was honored with a doctor of music degree at a convocation at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, for having served the Conservative movement and the Jewish people with distinction. He also was a Mason and served in the National Guard.

Karpo retired at the age of 80 not because his voice failed him, but because he was suffering from knee issues and other ailments. He was offered the chance to sit during services but declined.

“If I can’t stand, I’m not doing it,” he said.

At the time of his retirement, synagogue co-presidents Jack Belitsky and Joe Cooperstein praised Karpo in an email.

“The cantor has always conducted himself as if we are the center of the Jewish world in Northeast Philadelphia,” they wrote. “There is the Sidney Karpo of the bimah, whose voice shakes the very structure of the building. But there is also the Sidney Karpo that most of us don’t see: the one that patches the roof and the sidewalk, the one that fixes broken doors and windows, the one that puts up the sukkah.”

Upon retirement, Karpo and his wife moved to Florida, but he returned to the area five years later after her death.

Karpo is survived by children Shelia Banner (Ronald), Lynn Karpo-Lantz (Aron) and Alan Karpo (Shari); seven grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

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