Five years is a long time for a synagogue to go without a rabbi, but with the arrival of Rabbi/Cantor David Sislen, that is all over for Congregation Kneseth Israel in Annapolis.
Last month, Sislen officially started at Kneseth Israel.
Currently a resident of Annapolis, Sislen grew up in Montgomery County and attended the Charles E Smith Jewish Day School. When he was 15, he led High Holiday services in a cantorial role at Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase. He went to the University of Maryland, College Park, where he received a bachelor’s degree in theater design.
Sislen started his career as a lighting designer and technical director for theaters up and down the East Coast, but he would repeatedly be asked to fill in for cantors at different synagogues.
“Over time, the work in theater just didn’t seem as important to me as being on the pulpit,” Sislen said. “Being on the pulpit and praying and teaching just began to have much more importance. It felt like I was able to make much more of a difference in people’s lives than working in theater.”
Finding himself drawn more and more to the work in synagogues, Sislen eventually retired from his work in theater and became a full-time cantor. He was admitted to the Cantors Assembly in 2000 and served congregations in Gaithersburg, Florida and New York.
Over time, Sislen gained a reputation for teaching and for being someone congregants could turn to for advice, he said. Eventually, while serving at a congregation on Long Island, one of these congregants came to him with a suggestion.
“He said, ‘You know, there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t be a rabbi,’” Sislen said. “And I looked at him, and I couldn’t argue with him.”
Taking the advice, Sislen received his rabbinical smicha from Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk in Woodmere, N.Y. in 2014.
Kneseth Israel’s last rabbi, who also served as its cantor, had been Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum, who left in 2016, said Jonathan “Jody” Goldsmith, the president of Congregation Kneseth Israel. In 2017, due to declining membership, Kneseth Israel had been looking at merging with another congregation, and so finding and hiring a new rabbi was not the highest priority.
During this period, lay leadership handled many of the responsibilities that otherwise would have fallen to a rabbi, Goldsmith said. Starting in 2018, the synagogue would bring in Rabbi Jonathan Panitz of Catonsville once a month to handle Torah readings and sermons.
After merger plans were scrapped in 2019, the synagogue formed a rabbi search committee in 2020 to find a new rabbi for Kneseth Israel. They hoped to find one who could also serve in the role of a cantor. After reviewing a number of different candidates, the committee recommended Sislen, who was afterward approved by the board of directors.
So far, Kneseth Israel has been very pleased with Sislen’s performance, Goldsmith said.
“In a very short time, he has been running very fast, trying to implement new things, good things, and is open to ideas,” Goldsmith said of Sislen. “The High Holidays went very well, so we’re very happy.”
“I love being able to help people,” Sislen said on what he most enjoys about being a rabbi and cantor. “I like being able to motivate and teach. It’s wonderful to be a resource for people, a comfort to them when necessary, hopefully an inspiration for them when necessary.
“I like to do anything that I can to maintain the strength and the vibrancy of Judaism in the community and hopefully inspire more for coming generations,” Sislen added.
9/24/21 11:56 a.m. Correction: This article has been corrected to state that Rabbi Jonathan Panitz is a resident of Catonsville, and not Silver Spring. The Baltimore Jewish Times regrets this error.