Congregation Beth Torah, a small independent congregation in Florham Park, has a new leader with a big reputation.
Cantor Jonathan Comisar is an award-winning pianist and composer, balancing his work in musical theater and classical composition with the courses he teaches at the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
“It’s a curse to be passionate about so many things,” he quipped. “This synagogue allowed me to do the work I love — serving the Jewish community — while also pursuing other passions.”
Comisar began on a part-time basis with the congregation in the fall of 2014. Rosh Hashana will mark their first High Holy Day season together. He succeeds Rabbi Kenneth Tarlow, who led the congregation, which now has 28 family members, from 2009 until 2014.
Congregation president Sue Denholz couldn’t be more thrilled. “We were looking for someone who easily related to the children as well as the adults, who would bring a burst of youth,” she said. She described Beth Torah as “a small, family-oriented congregation. We are a very close-knit group.”
Denholz welcomed a cantor in the role of religious leader.
“Personally, I have been looking for the infusion of music for years,” she said.
Comisar returned her enthusiasm.
“I have really been embraced by this community. I’ve just been taken by the warmth and kindness and openness that this congregation has toward me and toward learning new things in a different style from what they are used to,” he said in a phone conversation with NJJN.
Comisar studied at the Eastman School of Music in his native Rochester, NY, winning first prize in the Eastman Young Artists Award Competition in high school, giving him the opportunity to play as piano soloist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He continued on to Oberlin College, where he took courses in the Conservatory of Music, ultimately earning a liberal arts degree.
He attended the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR, and was ordained in 2000. He served a community in Rye, NY, from 2002 until 2008, when he left to pursue other interests — including composing for musical theater — while teaching music theory, liturgy, composing, and arranging at the seminary. He has participated in the liturgical music festival staged by Shalshelet, a nonprofit that promotes new Jewish sacred music, and performs liturgical music regularly at synagogues around the country.
As a composer, Comisar has participated in the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop in New York. His musical theater piece Things as They Are won an Audience Favorite Prize at the 2010 New York Musical Theater Festival. It was nominated twice for the Fred Ebb Foundation Award. Additionally, he has written the music for a one-man show called The Cantor’s Couch, the odyssey of a cantor from Brooklyn trying to preserve the dying art of hazanut.
Comisar is currently in his second year of a master’s degree program in classical composition at the Manhattan School of Music.
One Friday night each month, he returns to Beth Torah from his home in Manhattan for kabalat Shabbat services. He is introducing new customs — like using a keyboard during services on Friday night — and new kinds of music, including Yiddish, Ladino, and the bakashot — special morning prayers — that are a tradition of the Sephardi Jewish community.
He is also in the process of finding the congregation a new prayer book, one with transliterations and “more up-to-date and inspiring readings and poetry, so more people feel included,” he said. The congregation now uses the Conservative movement’s Siddur Sim Shalom, first published in 1985 and reissued with some updates in 1998.
Comisar teaches a monthly adult education class, held in members’ homes, on topics like Jewish humor, Pirkei Avot, Jewish mysticism, and Jewish music.
He traces his combined passions for Judaism and music to early experiences of his family singing around the piano as his great-uncle played. “He made the piano sound like an orchestra,” said Comisar. They sang in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as English.
“I was swept up in how music can be joyful and bring people together,” he said.