Cantor Eliot Vogel Retires from Har Zion Temple After Nearly 32 Years

Cantor Eliot Vogel (Photo by Sabra Studios)

Cantor Eliot Vogel arrived at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley in 1991. He grew up in Connecticut, graduated from Boston University and then the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and served congregations in his home state and New Jersey.

But once he got to the Main Line, he never left.

Through six rabbinic transitions in 15 years between the late 2000s and late 2010s, Vogel was there. During the pandemic, the cantor was the only person in the building, keeping the community alive. And after it reopened, he was still there, greeting people as they walked through the doors or around the campus.

But after the first Shabbat weekend in November, he will no longer be there.

Vogel, 68, is retiring after more than three decades. He said it’s time for a younger voice to step onto the bimah and help transition to shorter services with more instruments and congregational participation. Vogel believes that Conservative synagogues are moving in that direction, while he is better-versed in the longer Conservative services of yesteryear.

“I imagine my successor being more adept at speaking to the Jews who will fill the pews in the future in a musical language, style and idiom which, while I might be able to appreciate, and might even employ at times now, would not be one that would feel entirely authentic to me,” Vogel said.

But the cantor will be missed, according to congregants.

Joe Carver, a Har Zion member for 70 years and a past president, called Vogel the “glue who’s kept Har Zion together.” Carver remembers the final Yom Kippur service led by the previous cantor, Isaac Wall, who served for 46 years, according to Har Zion’s website. Carver recalls thinking that the synagogue would never find such a great cantor again.

Now, though, he admits that Vogel proved him wrong.

“He’s much more than a cantor,” Carver said.

But a great cantor he certainly is. Carver remembered that, on numerous occasions, Vogel’s baritone voice brought him to tears. That voice can make a prayer “reach deep inside of you,” the longtime congregant said.

At the same time, according to Carver, Vogel is like a rabbi: He’s “a people person,” too. Despite his attachment to Conservative traditions, Vogel was willing to grow with his congregation. As Carver put it, Vogel probably never imagined when he took the job in 1991 that he would one day share the bimah with a computer. But during COVID, he adopted the practice to keep services going online.

Carver is not sure if Har Zion would even still be here without Vogel.

“There were people who fled when we had rabbi turmoil,” he said. “But he kept people there.”

Sarah Luksenberg has been a Har Zion congregant for more than 40 years. She lives within walking distance of the synagogue on Hagys Ford Road. And she called Vogel “the heart of Har Zion.”

“For 32 years, he’s been a leader, a mentor, a teacher,” she added.

Cantor Eliot Vogel leads a service at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. (Courtesy of Har Zion Temple)

Luksenberg thought about it for a second and then stated with confidence that she had not experienced a major life event without Vogel present. He was on the bimah at her bat mitzvah; he officiated at her wedding; he oversaw the naming ceremonies for her children.

While preparing for a wedding, the cantor tries to get to know “everything about you,” she said. And when he’s prepping for a bar or bat mitzvah, “he’s making sure you know the part and why you’re doing the part,” she added.

“He’s always there and always available. He’s a true leader,” Luksenberg concluded.

As he transitions into retirement, Vogel is looking forward to being available on a weekend for maybe the first time in his adult life. His wife, Karen Vogel, is also planning on retiring from her job as the director of social work for Saint Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

Working for a hospital requires weekend work, too, so for most of their careers, “doing something on a weekend was unheard of,” the cantor said. Now the couple can just enjoy the Sabbath and their three grandchildren, all of whom live within driving distance in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Rockville, Maryland.

Vogel doesn’t have a more specific plan than that. And he doesn’t want to make one just yet.

“It’s evolving sort of daily,” he said.

As he looks back over his career, the cantor hopes that people remember him for leading “beautiful services with a lot of intent” and as “a constant in people’s spiritual lives.” JE


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