As far as Cantor Kenneth Feibush is concerned, a synagogue should be “a place where people know each other, where everyone is one big family.” And he said he’s found exactly that at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, where he will begin his tenure on July 1. The newly minted cantor was invested by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City on May 8. He replaces Cantor Betsey Peters-Epstein, who will retire after 14 years with the Reform congregation.
Feibush decided during his search for a position that he would be open to seeing what Jewish life is like around the country or even around the world if the right placement came up. “I was looking for the right community first and the location last,” he said. He spent time during cantorial school as an intern in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Baton Rouge, La., as well as in Manhattan. In the end, though, he landed just about 25 miles from his hometown and not too much farther from where he attended university. But, the Rutgers graduate said, he doesn’t mind. “I guess I’m a Jersey boy, coming home.”
A native of Watchung, he grew up at another Temple Sholom, this one in Scotch Plains, where his parents are still members. They won’t be changing their membership anytime soon, said Feibush. All their best friends are there, although he hopes they will join him in Cedar Grove for High Holy Day services and other “major events.”
Feibush said he loves what he calls the “bring it on” mentality his new congregational community has shown him. “Everyone shows so much excitement when we’re on the phone and I’m e-mailing with different people in the community. I know they have so much love for [Peters-Epstein], and they know I’ll be different,” he said — although he still plans to maintain much of what she has built, from the choir to the way she organizes b’nei mitzva lessons.
Classical music has a strong hold on Feibush, a lyrical tenor who grew up playing the violin and the viola and taking voice lessons, although, said the 28-year-old, “I’m still a kid of the ’90s. I’ll take the Back Street Boys and Michael Jackson any day.” It was only in cantorial school that he tried his hand at guitar. “It’s a necessity for the modern cantor. And much easier to bring with you than a pipe organ,” he quipped.
The cantorate was not even on Feibush’s radar until after college. He majored in Middle Eastern studies and psychology, with a minor in Spanish. He was involved in Rutgers Hillel and joined a campus a cappella group, Deep Treble. He also played in an orchestra and joined a vocal ensemble at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. He said he “always knew” he’d be involved in synagogue life, but figured it would be as a lay leader, perhaps a congregation president. But, trying to figure out a career path after his 2010 graduation while working in retail, he started to realize that a career in the cantorate would “bring together all the things I love.”
Perhaps one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle for him is Zionism. “I have a difficult relationship with Israel,” he acknowledged. “To take blindly the idea that I have to love Israel no matter what does not take into account the problems Israel has, even internally,” said Feibush, who spent a year there during cantorial school.
He pointed to the growing rift between religious and secular as well as between rich and poor, and then suggested that efforts toward peace are becoming more and more of a “pipe dream.”
At the same time, he called the country “an oasis” in the Middle East and ticked off the things he loves about Israel, from providing a homeland for Jews to the fact that life follows the Jewish calendar. “It’s glorious,” he said, when you don’t have to take off for a Jewish holiday, “because everything shuts down.” Concluding that his feelings about Israel are mixed, he said, “We should be challenged every day and have a different emotion, like a relationship between parents and children. It’s not always easy, but if it were easy, it would be boring.”
He’s looking forward to settling in after so many internships with limited duration. His latest temporary position, at the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, ended after Shavuot.
Regarding his arrival at Temple Sholom, he said, “Now I have the sense that this will be my synagogue, and I will be the cantor. All the things I’ve been learning and studying for I will be putting into practice. It’s so exciting: the potential to build relationships that are not temporary.”
Feibush, who is single, is moving to Montclair as he begins his position.