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After 18 years on the pulpit, cantor changes direction

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Cantor Benjamin Matis

With 18 years behind him on the pulpit in the New York City area, Cantor Benjamin Matis is trying something new — in fact a lot of new things.

 

He hasn’t given up his profession completely — he served as cantor for the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation for High Holidays services.

Cantor Matis, 46, grew up Reform, but is affiliated with the Conservative movement. He attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, graduating in 2008. He was in the cantorial field, but did not go back to school until close to age 35.

What brought him to the Kansas City area is the Kansas Jewish History Project, which is putting together an encyclopedia of Kansas Jewish history. He is one of the fellows on the project and contributing editor. It is being written for the layman to use, he says, with references to where you can find new materials. It will be available online and published in print. 

He says there is a long, interesting history of Jews in Kansas, dating back to before the establishment of the state. There were attempts at agricultural colonies for Eastern European Jews and also German Jews who settled here and became merchants, thus becoming very involved in Kansas life. One of radical abolitionist John Brown’s men, August Bondi, was Jewish.

“Leavenworth was a really big Jewish community,” he says. “Bloomingdale’s, the department store, started there. The Bloomingdale brothers were in Leavenworth. It blew my mind when I found that out. It is such a quintessential New York institution, yet it started in Leavenworth.”

He doesn’t know when the project will be completed. The fellowships are over in May, but it may take longer to actually finish the project. “Once you start digging, you find out there’s more to dig,” he says.

So how is a lifelong New Yorker enjoying life in Kansas City? The cantor says it’s a nice change from New York and he and his family would like to stay. His family consists of wife Stefanie and 10-year-old daughter Shoshana; they reside in Leawood. He also has a son, Jacob, who still lives in New York. 

When they told friends they were moving to Kansas City, they got a lot of “Say hello to Dorothy and Toto.” He explained they were not moving to the middle of nowhere; they would be very near Kansas City, Missouri. And he loves crossing the state line into Missouri.

“It’s not like I need my shots or anything like when I had to go to New Jersey,” he quips. “I don’t need to show my I.D. at the border.”

He says the suburbs here look pretty much like the suburbs back home.

“We’ve been here for two months and we really like it, actually a lot. While we’re certainly homesick in certain ways, for the most part we’re quite comfortable here. It’s a lot more pleasant, and when you’re dealing with that on a daily basis the quality of your life just goes way up. We never realized just how true that was until we came here.”

He says Kansas City is a great town with a lot going on. The first week he was here, he went to the American Jazz Museum and loved it. The family also enjoyed the Plaza Art Fair.

“The Nelson-Atkins is a great museum and I’m looking forward to catching some musical things at the symphony and the opera,” he adds.

When he’ll find time to do these things is anyone’s guess. In addition to the Kansas Jewish History Project, Cantor Matis is tutoring three B’nai Mitzvah children; will be teaching a class at the KU Edwards campus in Overland Park called “Music in Jewish Culture” during the spring semester; is working on his doctorate; and is writing two academic articles to be published later this year.

A Busy Life

Cantor Matis says when tutoring Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids, he likes to start a year in advance, taking longer than others in that field because he includes Hebrew in his teaching.

He says some parents balk at the timeframe until they realize it actually makes it easier on the child because the child learns and is then not stressed out, so the parents aren’t stressed out either.

Two of the children he will be tutoring are from the LJCC and one is from Congregation Kol Ami. He says it will be fun to still do this type of work, yet not be doing it professionally.

Teaching Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids can be very challenging, but if people are satisfied with his work, he may end up with more B’nai Mitzvah kids.

“I’ve looked for ways to make it as painless as humanly possible,” he says. “It’s never going to be ‘fun,’ but I try not to make it insufferable for a kid. I use a lot of humor. I act as the child’s advocate and mentor: I’m there to help them. Never be adversarial, an opponent. I think that’s a very important thing.”

The class Cantor Matis will be teaching at the KU Edwards campus is called “Music in Jewish Culture.” He says it’s a way of having a survey of several things simultaneously. 

“One, it’s a survey of different types of Jewish music from different places around the world,” he explains. “Two, it is different types of music by genre, what sort of function it serves — is this music for a wedding, is this music for an actual religious service, is it something you sing at the table on Shabbat — and using those as an introduction to discussing all sorts of issues related to Jewish culture and Jewish life.”

He says you can get the same thing by studying Jewish literature. For instance, if you’re reading a course of Isaac Bashevis Singer and other Eastern European Jewish writers, you get a definite feel for the history and culture of Jews from that region. It’s no different when studying music.

“That’s one of my true loves,” he says.

His Ph.D. work is through Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. It has to do with “Reform” Judaism in Poland in the 19th century. He says the American Reform movement was much more radical than in Europe and there were no real movements in Europe in any formal sense. So if you weren’t Orthodox, you were Reform.

“There were more conservative reformers and the Polish model followed those, but they were definitely not Orthodox,” he says. “So it comes down to trying to establish definitions for that Conservative/Reform thing. I think it’s an interesting project and ultimately I see the roots of American Conservative Judaism coming out of way more than one school.”

The two academic articles he’s working on will be his second and third to be published. One is comparing Polish and Hungarian Jewry and the other is a translation he did of a Polish cantor’s essay written in 1924 in an attempt to create a labor union for Polish cantors.