Mordechai Schram uses his voice to connect people to God.
As the cantor leads members at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in prayer and song, Schram says ancient words bring generations together. Passionate chants heal broken lives.
In August, Schram, 46, replaced the beloved Moshe Friedler who retired as cantor after 21 years at the synagogue. Schram, a fourth-generation cantor, was brought in to re-energize Rodeph Sholom while respecting its century-long history. A graduate of H.L. Miller Cantorial School at Jewish Theological Seminary, he served at several synagogues in his hometown Manhattan before coming to Florida.
Schram has revamped youth programs and inspired events to help increase membership, such as an upcoming Saturday Night Fever disco party. The event is open to the community.
The Tampa Bay Times talked to Schram about his role in a job that he says inspires a love for Judaism that transcends time.
Growing up, did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the Jewish faith?
I grew up immersed in synagogue life. I always had a love of praying. Its in the blood. On my mother's side, my grandfather, great-grandfather and his father were hazzans (cantors). My mother is a Jewish storyteller. I always loved the oral traditions of the faith and the music. After college, I tried a career in advertising but it wasn't for me. In my late 20s, I realized becoming a cantor was the natural progression for me. When you know, you know.
You focus a lot on inspiring Jewish youth. What inspired you as a young man?
Camp Ramah (a Jewish youth camp). It's a whole different experience that makes Judaism come alive. To teach our children, we need to make the faith relevant to them. We live in a world today where I think it's harder to do that. We need to think creatively.
How do you reach out to the youth at Rodeph Sholom?
Kids have different ways of learning and I try to engage them by finding out what those ways are, whether it's through sports, drama, pop culture or cracking jokes.
I'm also really serious about what I do. When I teach a prayer or a chant, I let them know the context behind it so it's more than just words. Otherwise, there's disinterest.
I want it to have meaning to them. If something like a bar mitzvah is just another day in a kid's life, then there's going to be a disconnect later on.
Is it possible to uphold cantorial tradition and be modern?
Our tradition is thousands of years old and it's important to maintain it, our original prayers and sacred melodies. There are also new melodies out there. You have to find a balance between them.
What would you say to a Jewish person who is not currently practicing? Why should they come back to synagogue?
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Because we need each other. A synagogue is a place where you celebrate your greatest joys and are comforted by others in your times of sorrow. To be a part of a congregation is to be part of Jewish life.
I want people to see the shul (synagogue) as a spiritual center, a center for learning and a social center. Like with this disco event, it's about having fun together, being welcoming and bringing people in to see what we're about.
What do you like best about Rodeph Sholom?
I love the people. We've only been here five months and already they feel like a second family. The staff and volunteers here are so friendly.
At this synagogue, and really any synagogue, you have to think about all of the people that are making things happen. The rabbi and the cantor, we can't do it all. There are so many passionate people making it happen.
You and your wife, Jewish artist Sonia Gordon, recently had your first baby. How has fatherhood changed your perspective on Judaism?
It's only made its presence in my life more powerful. Now I have my own next generation to educate. Judaism can only survive if it is passed on from generation to generation.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.