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Songful, soulful messengers

The High Holy Days began Friday at sundown, but for Tampa Bay area cantors, preparation for this most sacred period in Jewish life has been going on for months.

They've been rehearsing chants and songs, ancient and modern, all particular to the 10-day observance that begins on Rosh Hashana and ends on Yom Kippur.

They've assembled choirs, hired musicians, consulted their rabbis and made time to build their own physical and spiritual stamina.

But attention to service music is not the cantor's only job. Unlike in Christianity, the responsibility of Jewish cantors is more extensive.

They are clergy who have gone through years of rigorous education. They work side by side with rabbis and perform weddings, bury the dead, teach, give sermons, consult and console. Most professional cantors serve as the primary backup for their rabbis.

"Modern cantors are educators and pastors,'' said David B. Sislen, the hazzan, or cantor, of Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg.

During the High Holy Days, the intensity of the job increases. Cantors must sing and chant through back-to-back services, including the 25-hour Yom Kippur fast, when neither food nor drink is allowed.

The High Holy Days, also known as the High Holidays or Days of Awe, draw large crowds to synagogues and temples. It's a time of introspection, penitence, forgiveness and renewal when it is believed God judges his people and writes their fate for the new year in the Book of Life. The book is closed at the end of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish year. Worshipers, most of them fasting, will attend services that day wearing white garments and canvas sneakers.

Cantors and their music must help to evoke the season's awe.

"There's a pleading quality to many of the chants and songs, because we beg for God's mercy in judging our deeds," said Deborah Jacobson, the cantor at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor. "God is presented as creator, judge and ruler over all.''

Rabbi Danielle Upbin, who leads Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater with her husband, Rabbi David Weizman, is also the cantor at the synagogue.

Known throughout the mid and north Pinellas County religious community for her rich, melodious voice, she had just returned from a singing lesson Wednesday, before the High Holidays.

And that evening, she led a practice session for a new lay choir she formed called the CBS Singers.

"I created the choir mostly to help inspire the congregation to sing with us,'' Upbin said. "The (singing) has to be a collective experience. I try not to take over with showmanship.''

The songs she sings are prayers, she said, and she takes her preparation very seriously.

For Upbin, the High Holidays represent a new beginning, a time to make repairs in her life and begin anew. So the songs have to be especially spiritual and emotionally stirring.

"For me, the music and the prayers have to come from the heart,'' she said.

For Harold Orbach, who joined Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater as the cantor two years ago, the High Holy Days are an "exciting time to lead the congregation and worship in a meaningful way.''

During Yom Kippur, he will sing nearly nonstop from morning until night, and said he feels more than up to the task.

"God's been good to me,'' said Orbach, 75. "My voice has really lasted. It has held out vocally. Once I'm in gear, I really get going. I'm at my best at the end of the night.''

Orbach was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1931. During Hitler's reign, he was smuggled out of his native country and taken to the United States to safety.

At 15, he became a cantor and served his first congregation, and went on to serve at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich., for 41 years before retiring to Bradenton.

He has performed all over the world with singers that include the legendary Ella Fitzgerald.

For Orbach, the High Holidays represent a clean slate, a new opportunity to become closer to God.

"It's a wonderful time of introspection and taking stock in oneself,'' he said.

One of the elements that increases the high emotional quotient of this period is that Yom Kippur is one of four times a year set aside for the recitation of the Yizkor prayer of remembrance for the dead.

"I love the High Holidays,'' said Jacobson of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, adding that she appreciates the tradition, unity of the Jewish people and intense spirituality that are particularly evident during this time.

For Sislen, the High Holidays, which conclude with the 25-hour Yom Kippur fast, leave him on a spiritual high.

"If the prayer is genuine and it's coming from deep within, I've always found that over the course of the day, I gain strength rather than lose it,'' he said. "As the day goes on, the spiritual immediacy of what you're doing and why you're doing it grows.''