Neil Michaels is now officially a cantor.
That may surprise congregants at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, where he has been working, originally as a cantorial soloist, for more than 13 years.
On May 4, Michaels received cantorial certification from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, following a four-year course of part-time study for students who were already working full-time as congregational cantors.
It was HUC-JIR’s first such course; Michaels, 43, was one of its six graduates.
Temple Israel will celebrate his achievement at Friday evening services on July 22.
Singing and chazzanut are part of Michaels’ heritage. Two late cousins, Louis Danto and Edward Fogel, were well-regarded cantors. Danto officiated at Michaels’ bar mitzvah in Toronto, where he grew up, and was “the cantorial voice in my ear,” he said. Once Michaels’ family became of aware of his beautiful voice, Fogel’s mother, Michael’s Aunt Etka, would wag her finger at him and say, “You could be a chazzan!”
After four summers at Interlochen Arts Camp in Northern Michigan, Michaels knew he wanted to make singing his career.
He completed a bachelor of music degree at the Juilliard School in New York and did graduate work at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
For several years, he had a successful performance career, singing with opera companies and traveling musical theater troupes throughout the country and abroad. He directed the Metropolitan Opera’s outreach efforts and led services periodically at New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel.
When Michaels and Stephanie Garza, a singer he’d met at Juilliard, decided to marry, life on the road lost its allure.
Stephanie Michaels grew up in Troy, and the couple decided to move to Michigan. They met Temple Israel’s Rabbi Harold Loss in 2002 while looking for a place to hold their wedding and felt an immediate connection.
After scheduling the August 2003 wedding, Michaels was invited to sing at Temple Israel’s High Holiday services. The following December, he joined Temple Israel clergy.
Michaels and his wife, who now teaches voice at Oakland University, have a daughter, Elliana, 10, and a son, Shane, 7. They live in Commerce Township.
Learning the liturgy wasn’t difficult, Michaels said. He’d grown up attuned to cantorial singing. Musically, he’d sung more challenging pieces. Cantor Lori Corrsin, now music director of Temple Emanu-El in New York, who was then at Temple Israel, was a valued mentor in his early years.
His main challenge as a cantorial soloist, Michaels said, was “learning the difference between just leading the prayers and engaging the congregation. I had to learn to be less ‘performative.’”
His certification studies concentrated on helping students add breadth and depth in their work, he said, adding the program made him more committed and more confident as he continues to serve as a cantor.
Michaels says the most important part of his work is “helping people to find some connection through music, prayer or even conversation and to see that there is meaning in observing Shabbat.”
He’s succeeding admirably, say his fellow clergy at the temple.
“Cantor Michaels is the quintessence of what makes music and worship at Temple Israel so meaningful,” said fellow cantor Michael Smolash. “He has a spectacular and inviting voice and has such an open-hearted, caring presence that you find yourself swept up into Shabbat the moment he leads the first prayer.”
“His creativity is endless,” added Rabbi Josh Bennett. “He is willing to push the limits of Jewish learning to find a spiritual path to connect with people.”
The celebration for Michaels at Temple Israel begins with an outdoor picnic at 6 p.m. RSVP by July 18 to Sandi at firstname.lastname@example.org or (248) 661-5700. Camp Shabbat follows at 6:45 p.m. Children ages 4-10 are invited to enjoy camp-style activities, games and crafts. Babysitting is available for children under 4. RSVP by July 18 to Alicia at email@example.com or (248) 661-5725.
by Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer