It’s not easy stepping into the shoes of legendary Cantor Jacob Mendelson, especially as the High Holy Days roll around. The cantor, who is the subject of the 2005 documentary “A Cantor’s Tale,” is renowned not only at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, but throughout the Jewish liturgical world as well for his voice, musical talents, presence and inspiration to the generations of cantors he trained.
Newly arrived Cantor George Mordecai is undaunted by the challenge, while acknowledging the debt he owes to Cantor Mendelson, as well as others who have taught him.
“I didn’t feel intimidated by Cantor Mendelson,” said Mordecai. “It’s more of an honor to be able to follow someone with such an impact. He was my teacher at school. He’s had such an impact on the cantorial world. There’s the feeling of filling big shoes. I do feel an awesome sense of responsibility. He built the community musically — it’s good, it’s joyful.”
Mordecai brings his own considerable talents, as well as a diverse background, to Temple Israel Center. The cantor, born and raised in Sydney, Australia, comes from an Iraqi Jewish community that was traditionally Orthodox, although not strictly shomer Shabbos. With a family background that includes grandparents who came from Iraq, South Africa and Southeast Asia (Mordecai’s father was raised in Calcutta, India), Mordecai grew up in a synagogue where the community elders tapped him early to learn the Iraqi Jewish liturgical tradition.
“It was a labor of love, and a powerful experience,” said Mordecai, who credits his uncle for instilling in him the connection to liturgy and synagogue. “I owe him everything.”
Mordecai had gone to Israel to study for about 18 months after graduating from the University of New South Wales in Sydney; on his return, he worked with multicultural music festivals in Sydney and performed as a singer and musician.
A local Reform temple in Sydney tapped Mordecai to do a program on Sephardic music, which led to a monthly gig leading Friday night services. In turn, that led to teaching bar mitzvah students and ultimately a role as chazzan, leading a traditional egalitarian Saturday morning service that was based on the Conservative tradition.
Although Mordecai had gone to work in his father’s paper-manufacturing business the tug of working in the Jewish community as a spiritual leader was irresistible.
“When I was asked to lead the traditional Saturday morning service, I realized ‘I like this’”, said Mordecai. “I like being with the people, and being part of the community. It was like a Carlebach minyan, with elements of Sephardic music, and traditional Ashkenazi — an ‘everything in the mix’ minyan.’’
The synagogue sent him to the United States to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary for cantorial training. Mordecai began his career at a Philadelphia community, moving on to five years at Temple Emanu-El in Miami, and most recently at Stamford’s Temple Beth El.
Mordecai relocated to White Plains from Connecticut with his wife, Michelle Frankel, a biologist and ornithologist who is the director of the Audubon Greenwich center, and their two daughters.
Mordecai sees one of his missions, given that the TIC community is eager to participate more in services and have more opportunities to sing, is to “promote tradition, and bring in change,” he said. “While respecting the tradition of Temple Israel Center, I’ll bring in some different melodies. We live in an exciting time.”
He’s eager to share his musical tradition, and to expand horizons for his congregation — Mordecai will be performing at Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun on Oct. 12.
Since the congregants are “very educated Jewishly and are very proactive Jewishly,” acknowledged Mordecai, he sees his role as “an instrument to help facilitate them, to be a vessel to enhance and promote spirituality.”
Besides teaching music, and preparing b’nei mitzvot students, Mordecai is eagerly anticipating his responsibilities in “preparing people to lead services.” He’ll also be teaching a class in “sacred encounters,” with a focus on meditation and niggunim.
The cantor is all too aware of the changing landscape for Jewish institutions, including synagogues.
“We live in a competitive community, especially in the Jewish community,” he said, acknowledging that people “come to synagogue as a choice.” In response, he feels that synagogues should be “spiritual, vibrant and as creative as possible. We have to offer something people feel they need, a spiritual connection to tradition and community.”