Freehold cantor mixes tradition and creativity

Freehold cantor mixes tradition and creativity

Cantor Alan M. Smolen became the new cantor Aug. 1 at Congregation Agudath Achim Freehold Jewish Center.
Cantor Alan M. Smolen became the new cantor Aug. 1 at Congregation Agudath Achim Freehold Jewish Center.

As Congregation Agudath Achim Freehold Jewish Center prepares to enter its second century, its new cantor is preparing to bring his own decades of experience.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity and there is potential for both myself and the congregation, which is at an interesting crossroads,” said Alan M. Smolen in a phone interview. “The future bodes well for both of us.”

Smolen describes himself as “committed to both the preservation of Jewish liturgy, nusah hat’filla (traditional prayer chant)” and “familiar congregational singing as well as creative liturgy and fine quality contemporary musical settings.”

Smolen, most recently cantor at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor City, succeeds Cantor David Katchen, who served the congregation for eight years.

A Chicago-area native, Smolen chanted from the Torah at age 11 at Northwest Suburban Jewish Center in Morton Grove and accepted his first High Holy Day position at 16.

That position, at a small traditional synagogue, was Smolen’s only diversion “from nursery school on” from the Conservative movement, where he has long been active in its Cantors Assembly. He recently served as a member of its executive council and as an instructor/mentor for its partner, the European Academy of Jewish Liturgy.

“I consider it not only a joy, but a privilege to be part of the New Jersey Region of the Cantors Assembly,” said Smolen, past chair of the organization’s Midwest region.

The Freehold Jewish Center calls itself “Traditional,” marking the first time “as an adult” that Smolen is working at a congregation not affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“It’s interesting how life goes full circle,” he said. “In some ways, I’m going back to my old roots.”

Still, his Conservative ties remains strong. He met his wife, Jewish educator Marla Topp, through the movement’s United Synagogue Youth. The couple has moved to Englishtown with their cat, Shirah.

He received bachelor’s degrees in Jewish history and liturgy through a joint program of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Columbia University and a master’s degree from the seminary. While at JTS, he helped found its egalitarian synagogue, serving as gabbai.

Smolen had his first pulpit at Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, NY, serving for five years.

He later worked for a maker of home and commercial security systems.

Smolen served as both cantor and sole clergy at two Elgin, Ill., congregations. He also served as chaplain with the Elgin police department and as a member of the clergy advisory committee for the local school district.

At the Atlantic County synagogue, a vacation destination, Smolen created a summer artist-in-residence program, reinvigorated third-grade prayer and fifth-grade Torah chanting, and led special musical Friday night Shabbat services.

Smolen said he felt an immediate connection to his new congregation’s rabbi, Kenneth Greene.

“I have great respect for his career and what he has done in the rabbinate,” said the cantor. “The weekend I came to audition I felt very comfortable, like we had worked together for years. I am excited to work together with a rabbi of his accomplishments.”

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