Meet the new cantor and ‘transition’ rabbi at Beth Israel

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Congregation Beth Israel in Owings Mills recently welcomed two new senior clergy members: Rabbi Murray Ezring and Cantor Benjamin Matis.

Rabbi Murray Ezring (right) and Cantor Benjamin Matis (left) (Courtesy of Beth Israel)

Ezring’s hiring followed the retirement of predecessor Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein. While Ezring’s position is a temporary one, he does not consider himself an interim rabbi but rather a “transition rabbi.”

“When people hear the term ‘interim rabbi,’ they think you’re just hiring someone to be a placeholder for the previous rabbi,” Ezring said. “‘Transition rabbi’ is a better title because it tells the congregation that I’m here to guide them through a transitionary period.”

Ezring could be described as an old hand at the role at this point — this is his third time serving in an interim rabbi position. But the Owings Mills resident, 71, has served in long-term rabbinical positions in multiple congregations as well.

The funny thing is, Ezring did not always plan to be a rabbi. In fact, he said, his father tricked him into it.

A cantor in their hometown of Rock Island, Illinois, for 37 years, one year Ezring’s father promised him a free summer vacation in New York. The only catch was that he had to take two classes a day at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he ended up falling in love with Talmud.

“It really struck a chord in that part of me that loved studying law,” Ezring said. When he came home that summer, he asked his fiancée if she wouldn’t mind moving to New York so he could study to become a rabbi.

Ezring actually retired four years ago, but a push from his wife led to him to pursue work as an interim rabbi.

Since joining the synagogue’s clergy a month ago, Ezring has been working with Cantor Benjamin Matis, 52, himself a new member of the team. Unlike Ezring, who was raised by a cantor father heavily involved in the community, Matis’s early relationship with Judaism got off to a rocky start.

“I was a terrible Hebrew school student and would frequently skip out on lessons,” he admitted. “My bar mitzvah was a near-disaster, because I was totally unprepared. I didn’t become interested [in Judaism] until my twenties.”

After graduating from Peabody Institute, he discovered the world of traditional Jewish music and became interested in it. “I wanted to be the Jewish Pavarotti,” Matis said.

In addition to his cantorial work for synagogues, Matis has a fair amount of experience in concert performance. He’s previously performed with the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland, playing pieces from famous Polish Jewish composers. He had planned to go back to Poland and record with the orchestra, but his plans were put on hold due to the conflict in Ukraine and the amount of refugees entering Poland.

Matis has also written several academic articles about Polish Jewry and its history. As for his plans for Beth Israel, he wants to implement more musical programs at the congregation, including a concert for his installation.

“I’m really proud of that stuff [his music], proud of my academic stuff, but I’m also really happy to do the day-to-day work of a cantor, which is wonderful,” Matis said. “I really love this line of work, even after doing it for 24 years. It’s still exciting every year.”

Though they have only just started working together, and Ezring’s contract only allows him to serve as Beth Israel’s rabbi for two years at most, the new rabbi and cantor get along well.

“He’s a very nice guy, he’s got a big beautiful voice,” Ezring said of Matis. “I know he wants the congregation to live up to its potential also. So I think it’ll be a good year, for me and the congregation. And hopefully the beginning of a long tenure for Cantor Matis.”

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