Notable guest rabbi and cantor help shul with ‘spiritual work’

With the departure of Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath’s rabbi earlier this summer, members of the congregation’s religious committee knew they would have their hands full finding someone to lead services for the quickly approaching High Holy Days.

“Repentance is a big goal [of the holidays], and it’s something that’s difficult to achieve fully,” said Michael Friend, who chairs BCMH’s religious committee. “An excellent rabbi and excellent cantor help us do our spiritual work.”

The committee set out to find not only a rabbi to lead services, but also a cantor to chant the powerful melodies unique to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They were lucky enough to find both in Rabbi Pinchas Dunner, who is currently serving as mashgiach ruchani (spiritual counselor) and Jewish studies teacher at Yeshiva University High School in Los Angeles.

“We were looking for somebody fresh, somebody young, somebody who could bring a balance of professionalism and warmth,” said Friend of Dunner, adding that the spiritual leader is truly a multi-dimensional rabbi who will be able to relate to congregants on multiple levels.

Rabbi Dunner was born in London to a family with a rich history of Jewish involvement. His grandfather, Rabbi Josef Hirsch Dunner, served as chief rabbi of Prussia prior to World War II. In 1938, he escaped to the United Kingdom with his family, where his son Avraham would go on to serve as an educator and as the executive director of the Conference of European Rabbis.

“My parents and grandparents on both sides were exceptionally actively involved in Jewish life and Jewish affairs,” Rabbi Dunner recalled. “Wherever I went, there were references to my family being involved all over Europe. I couldn’t escape it.”

A fifth-generation rabbi, Dunner left religious service for several years to work in business, but eventually left that because he “just wasn’t happy.” He has since found a calling in Southern California, teaching at YULA and working with secular Israeli expatriates to connect them to Jewish life and culture.

Joining Rabbi Dunner will be Meir Briskman, who will serve as ba’al tefillah (prayer leader). A world-renowned Israeli conductor and composer, Briskman knew he had a natural affinity for music at a young age, but received no formal music education until he was in his twenties.

“I was raised to study in yeshiva,” said Briskman, who grew up in a Haredi Orthodox household and whose father still teaches at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. At 24, with two years of private music lessons under his belt, he began attending the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. It was there he would receive his two bachelor’s degrees — one in musical composition and the other in conducting — and his master’s degree, also in conducting.

“I found a connection between my musical world and my religious world [through cantorial work],” explained Briskman, who conducts the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute Choir and the Jerusalem Cantors Choir. Briskman also has his own choir, Lishmoa el HaRina, which, at only a year and a half old, was invited to participate in the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland this past July. Briskman called the performance at the festival, which is the biggest Jewish music festival in the world “an honor.”

Briskman was approached by one of his singers in the Jerusalem Cantors Choir to help lead High Holy Day services at BCMH. He submitted his audio files to the religious committee at BCMH, and Friend was floored.

“I was absolutely amazed at what I was listening to,” said Friend. “He has a beautiful voice.”

Friend is looking forward to the combination of talents Dunner and Briskman can bring to services at BCMH. He hopes that the services will not only provide spiritual meaning for current members, but for non-members, as well.

“Maybe there are people that never thought that traditional Jewish worship could be a meaningful path,” he said. “If [we] could speak to those people and get them excited and give them new thoughts, that would be very important. It isn’t just about helping bring the congregants we currently have to a higher state, but also reaching out.”

For Rabbi Dunner’s part, he is excited to come to Seattle to lead BCMH in prayer.

“I understand the community in Seattle is particularly warm, particularly special, wonderful and hospitable,” he said. He hopes that services will allow congregants time for introspection, and that they will view Rosh Hashanah as a positive jumping-off point for the rest of the year.

Briskman, too, is looking forward to leading BCMH in morning services, or Shacharit.

“It’s too much to ask that 100 percent of members will feel something,” he joked, “but I hope that many of them will feel something from my davening. If that happens, that’s all I need.”

BCMH has audio and video clips of Rabbi Dunner and Meir Briskman on its website, www.bcmhseattle.org. Services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath are free to the public. You can reserve your seat by calling the BCMH office at 206-721-0970.

This piece originally appeared in JT News.

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