‘Legend’ retires as Adath Shalom’s cantor

‘Legend’ retires as Adath Shalom’s cantor

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Cantor Jack Korbman and his wife, Barbara, are at the center of a celebratory dance at the gala held on the occasion of his retirement on Dec. 5.
Cantor Jack Korbman and his wife, Barbara, are at the center of a celebratory dance at the gala held on the occasion of his retirement on Dec. 5.

It is hard to imagine Cantor Jack Korbman’s office at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains emptied when he retires at the end of December. There’s the hundreds of photographs of b’nei mitzva students that cover the walls, the candy machine and gumballs on his desk, and the stuffed animals — particularly the penguin wearing a tallit — that nestle everywhere. 

But as he put it, paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, “There’s a season for everything, including a time to acquire and a time to let go. It’s my time to let go.”

After 30 years at Adath Shalom, Korbman and his wife, Barbara, have already let go of their New Jersey home, and are looking forward to warmer weather in Boynton Beach, Fla. 

Many of Korbman’s former students joined congregants, friends, family, and well-wishers Dec. 4-5 for a weekend honoring the Korbmans. It included a special kabalat Shabbat service and a gala Saturday night dinner chaired by long-time Adath Shalom members Harvey and Tammie Applebaum.

To mark the occasion, actor Jason Alexander recorded a video tribute to the tutor who saw him through bar mitzva preparations at Ahavath Achim Bikur Cholim, the now-defunct synagogue in Irvington in the 1970s. The future Seinfeld star grew up in Livingston.

“Yes, it is true,” Alexander says in the video. “Jack Korbman is the man who taught George Costanza the Sh’ma.”

In a fitting tribute, his last student, Matt Karl, will celebrate becoming bar mitzva on Dec. 19. Matt is a second-generation celebrant, like so many of Korbman’s. The cantor tutored Matt’s father decades ago when both were in Irvington at Ahavath Achim Bikur Cholim.

Korbman, 79, grew up in Newark, son of a cantor/rabbi/shohet with three generations of cantors before him. His father insisted not only on Jewish learning but also a secular education, Korbman said. 

The Weequahic High School graduate started singing at a young age, both with cantors and big-band style orchestras. He ultimately trained for the cantorate, first with his father, then with Chaim Holtz in Elizabeth, and, in Newark, with Nathaniel Sprinzen and Norman Sommers, at Temple B’nai Abraham (now in Livingston) and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (now in Short Hills), respectively. 

But Korbman also earned an undergraduate degree in education from Upsala College in East Orange and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University. He spent 34 years as a teacher and then administrator in the Newark public schools before turning to the cantorate full-time.

He was lured to Adath Shalom in 1985 when it was still in Boonton and called Temple Beth Shalom. By then he had plenty of experience, having spent 20 years at Ahavath Achim Bikur Cholim followed by three at Congregation Beth Torah in Florham Park. 

At his interview, Harvey Applebaum, the lay leader representing the congregation, hired Korbman on the spot. “I love you, you’re hired,” is how Harvey’s wife, Tammie, described the meeting. 

Korbman said he was drawn to the congregation, then with about 120 families, because “people were interested in learning about Yiddishkeit and practicing Yiddishkeit. People came to services, and on Friday nights, they would stay until 11 pm. They had to be kicked out! They would shmooze, the kids would play.” 

Even today, though the synagogue membership has tripled, he said, “This congregation is unbelievable. Everyone is a mensch! They are the nicest, sweetest people you’d ever want to meet.”

And of course, he turned his thoughts to the kids. “The youngsters are fantastic. They are all special, and they really do very well.”

The congregants return the compliments. “He’s sweet, kind, unpretentious, loves the kids — and he can sing also,” said Tammie Applebaum. “He wants the kids to feel good about themselves.” 

“One thing I learned many years ago is that the more pleasant you make [bar mitzva lessons], the more they will come,” said Korbman.

In reaching youngsters, he drew on his days in the classroom. “Most cantors are trained as cantors. They can teach trop and prayers. But engaging students — I don’t think they’ve learned this,” he said. “I view every child as my own, and I think they pick up on that.” 

Lay leaders at Adath Shalom have calculated that Korbman has tutored 758 kids at Adath Shalom and more than 1,750 over a career spanning more than 55 years and four synagogues. 

“If they knew how much I loved my job, they would never have paid me,” he said.

Rabbi Moshe Rudin said that when he arrived at the congregation in 2013, “it was a little intimidating working with a legend.” But it turned out he had nothing to fear. “Jack was so warm and welcoming. And he made sure I knew everyone and pulled me along at the beginning,” said Rudin. “He quickly became my mentor, someone to turn to.” 

Now that Korbman is leaving, Rudin said, the congregation is torn. “We want to let him move on and be understanding of his wishes, but on the other hand, everyone wants him around,” he said. “I miss him already.”

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