The humanity stirring within a synagogue’s walls are the true catalysts for instilling the beliefs in its community.
Music can be more powerful than words
All the clergy, and volunteers at the Shaar Hashomayim are exceptionally dedicated towards the continual enrichment of Jewish awareness and observance, and this is apparent through the services and educational activities.
The Shaar has become renowned in Westmount and beyond for its musical renditions of the many harmonious and historical tunes. The entrance of a young Cantor five years ago is one of the reasons, as his vocal eloquence is hypnotizing. In addition, the inspiring clergy — Rabbi Scheier, Rabbi Wolfson and Rabbi Berman — all work together and their efforts are vividly demonstrated during all synagogue occasions.
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer is a man of diverse talents, and since arriving at this Westmount synagogue he has made a profound impact. His rendition of prayer, partnered with esteemed musical director Steven Glass and the outstanding choir, demonstrate a combined repertoire commemorating the rituals of Judaism.
The cantor’s office, located on the upper floors, displays a mélange of his diverse interests. Photos depict special occasions and a love of baseball. Shelves display information about his family while certificates verify his accomplishments. He sincerely appreciates the qualities of life worth striving for in spirituality, community and above all, family. During his 33 years, he has certainly traveled a fascinating sojourn to have finally reached his Montreal home as the cantor of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
On a chilly November afternoon, I met with Cantor Zelermyer. No matter how many times that I have entered the Shaar, I remain in awe of the architectural beauty and that sense of committed continuity due to the longevity of generations of members. Although this Cantor may be young in years, his dedicated command of his position belies this youthfulness. As the son of a Rabbi, he was destined to follow the same path as his father. Growing up in West Hartford Connecticut, Gideon recalls his musical home, and his Mother’s opera influence, which eventually led to Gideon’s love of the art. In fact, at the age of five, Gideon attended his first performance, Carmen, and although he did not quite connect with it, the music had an impact.
“At a very young age, I was able to distinguish between Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland’s voices, but the appreciation really began at the end of high school.” Today he owns close to 2,000 CDs, which he listens to frequently.
For Gideon, at that time, singing was a hobby, but he always participated in choirs. He attended George Washington University and studied Judaic Studies, with a minor in religion, with plans upon graduation to go to Rabbinical School in New York. During that time, the cantor at his father’s synagogue had departed and Gideon was asked to fill in.
While studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he would return home to act as the cantor during the High Holidays and eventually on the weekends as well. It was around that time that a self-realization occurred. “I grew up in the synagogue and so many of the people there were like my other grandparents," he says. "The things I loved most were all the rituals, and each one of these rituals had music attached. At that point I began to understand that music could be more powerful than the words.”
He had begun to love his weekends, but it was when he encountered a certain individual that he knew that he had to follow what was in his heart. “It was spring break of my junior year and the cantor from the Jerusalem Great Synagogue was to be singing at a neighbouring synagogue. His name was Naftali Herstik and I went to hear him. In my life, I had never seen a cantor like him. I was in awe of his regal dignity and I decided that he was exactly who I wanted to be.”
Gideon had met Herstik in March of 1996; when his parents traveled to Israel during the summer of 1998, he asked them to look up this cantor. They did and gave Herstik a recording of Gideon. In the fall of 1999, Gideon’s calling was joyfully acknowledged and he moved to Jerusalem for two years and lived five blocks from the great cantor’s home. "He became a second father to me,” Gideon says.
Cantor Gideon Zelermyer arrived in Montreal in April 2001 and after three years at the Shaar Zion Synagogue on Cote St. Luc Road, he stepped through the doors of the Shaar Hashomayim in July 2004. There he met and became a close friend of Steven Glass, and together they have collaborated on many wonderful concerts, which Gideon believes are the icings on the cake. “We are kindred musical spirits. There is a deep connection when you make music together.”
The community welcomed Gideon, and eventually his young wife, Michelle Rosenhek, as well. Coincidentally, it is as if life had intended to transport Gideon here, Michelle happens to be the third generation of her family to have been married at this synagogue. This past Sept. 23, during the high holidays, their son Max was born, making his life even more complete. “I feel so at home here," he says. "There is a special ambiance with the formal dignity of the black hats, formal garb and cantorial attire that the Shaar still hangs onto, and which I want to be part of.”
Gideon Zelermyer feels a tremendous sense of responsibility in a profession that has been bequeathed to him. “I love the synagogue feeling and I have always wanted to be part of something that matters.” He is a combination of the traditional and modern worlds and his focus is threefold: the music of this synagogue, the life cycle events and the bar mitzvahs in which he teaches the young boys while establishing a relationship and a connection with their spirituality.
The music imparts the feeling of the words and world events are influential and always reflected in the passion and delivery of his melodies. The synagogue has celebrated 160 years, and with Gideon Zelermyer as their cantor, there will be many more musical celebrations and services forthcoming. For the congregation, myself included: we have received a gift in all our clergy members; and of course…….in the music of our heritage.