From podiatrist to science teacher to cantor

An interiew with Cantor Dr. Joel Gluck

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Cantor Dr. Joel Gluck was ordained by the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute in 2019. In 2020, the baritone became the spiritual leader at Bristol’s United Brothers Synagogue. Cantor Gluck is also the artistic director of Shirenu, the Jewish community choir at Temple Sinai, in Cranston.

Gluck and his wife, Gaye, were married in 1993, and their son, Anthony, is a student at Rhode Island College. The couple lives in Warwick.

Here are Cantor Gluck’s responses, edited for length and clarity, to questions asked during a video interview

When did you first become interested in music?

I went to the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, in Philadelphia. In 1990, I joined a Jewish choir there, the Arbel Chorale, and I got the bug. Later, I was a member of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which is a professional Jewish choir. From there, I got interested in becoming a cantor. I learned as much as I could on my own, and then enrolled in the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (JSLI); it was a wonderful experience. Then I wanted to learn more, so this semester I enrolled part time in the Masters of Jewish Sacred Music program at the Academy of Jewish Religion in California.

What inspired you to go from participating in a choir to a leadership role?

I’ve always loved the music of Jewish prayer. I learned so much of it on my own, and I wanted to learn the stuff that you need to run a service; that’s where JSLI came in. I’ve been a lifelong learner; I love being in school. That’s why I went back now, and why I love being a teacher. It’s why I went into the Academy of Jewish Religion. I’m never happy with where I am; I always want to go further.

What was the path that led you to Rhode Island?

I went to Stony Brook University [in New York] and then to Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine. I lived in downtown Philly for a number of years, and from there I took a job in Connecticut. But my wife and I wanted to live in an area with a Jewish community, so we decided to live in Warwick.

You were a practicing podiatrist, but gave up medicine to become a science teacher. Why?

Commuting from Warwick to my practice in Connecticut for 11 years or so, there was always something missing. I realized that I didn’t like the clinical aspect of medicine, but I liked the science of it. I realized that I really liked school, and that I wanted to teach. So, I got certified as a public-school teacher. I sold my practice and took a full-time job as a science teacher. I teach anatomy and physiology at Cranston High School West and the Community College of Rhode Island.

Tell me about your Jewish background.

I was raised in New York, on Long Island. I didn’t have a very active Jewish life as a child – that really came when I met my wife. She kind of led me into it, and it took over from there. Now, we are members of Temple Sinai, Temple Emanu-El [in Providence], [and] Chabad of West Bay [in Warwick].

How did you become involved with United Brothers Synagogue?

I was at the point in my training that I wanted to have my own congregation, and around March or April, United Brothers put an advertisement in [Jewish Rhode Island]. As soon as I saw the ad, I made a phone call; the rest is history.

How is United Brothers different from other places where you’ve led prayer?

Here, I do everything – the sermons and the service, as well as the singing, so it’s a little different from just leading the prayer. If there was a rabbi next to me, they would do half of the things I’m doing now.

I assume you’re doing most things virtually; have you done anything like that before?

Yes, 100% virtual. As a teacher, I’ve been conducting online classes since March, but music over Zoom is not that great, and you can’t do more than one voice at a time and keep your sanity. I miss the ability to be able to actually meet the congregants – I would love to meet them all.

We’ve been getting a steady, consistent number of people watching our services on YouTube, about half of our membership has watched at some point or another.

Do you have a favorite piece of Jewish or liturgical music?

There are so many. I love the “R’tzei,” by [Stephen] Richards, a Friday-night piece.  “L’dor V’dor” is a favorite of mine, because it was sung at my son’s naming. Kol Nidrei is an obvious answer. I love the high holiday music – it’s grand and majestic … it’s not only the present that you’re in, but you’re thinking about the past as well, which is what the high holidays are about – taking your path and making a better future.

I’m very interested in preserving chazones, the old Eastern European chazzanut [melodies and intonations]. One of my upcoming goals would be to have a concert with old-fashioned chazzanut from the golden age – Moishe Oysher, Yossele Rosenblatt, all those. I listen to those cantors so that I can become inspired to do what I do.

It’s a special skill that the cantors had in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s. You could actually feel what they were saying. You may not have understood what they were saying, but you knew what they were saying  just by how they were singing it.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspects of your work?

There’s a quote from the Baal Shem Tov: “Music takes you from the place you are to the place you want to be.” So, I guess the most rewarding aspect of what I do is helping people get to where they want to be from where they are.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

I like Simchat Torah. I connect greatly with the Torah scroll. Whenever I’m around the Torah, it makes me feel good.

Favorite traditional foods?

People think I’m crazy, but one of the things I love is shmura matzah. I can’t eat square matzah anymore, it doesn’t taste the same. I also like potato latkes, but they don’t always like me, and Passover candy – I like the chocolates from Manischewitz, and the sesame bricks.

If you could have any three people to dinner, who would you invite?

I would love to sit and have a conversation with Moses, just to hear straight out of his mouth what happened. I would love to have a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr., because I’m very active in MLK celebrations in the state. And then, it’s going to sound kind of corny, but one of the pop stars that was famous when I was growing up, like Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow – the people I’ve always had fantasies of singing with.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I did my first high holiday services on my own, I posted on Facebook that I wanted to emulate the old cantors. A cantor friend of mine, someone I’ve known for 30 years, said, “Don’t worry about being the best of them; be the best of yourself.”  That’s been the most helpful for me.

MICHAEL SCHEMAILLE is a Cumberland-based freelance writer and editor. Reach him at mbschemaille@gmail.com.