Cantor Emil Berkovits lost his voice as a young boy.
He was born in what was then Czechoslovakia and is now Sturovo, Slovakia, in 1936, two years before the Nazis invaded and forced his family to go into hiding in a cellar under a vegetable garden. For years, they could only whisper, for fear of being heard and captured. Prolonged silence at such a young age damaged the development of his vocal cords, and when he emerged above ground after the war, he could barely speak. He worked hard to get his voice back, and when it did, it touched the lives of thousands of people.
“He inspired us to use our voices in prayer and in song,” said Marcy Yellin, a musician and Jewish educator who worked closely with Berkovits when he was cantor at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott from 2004 to 2015.
Yellin, along with Shirat Hayam congregants Sue Weiss and Carol Denbo, attended Berkovits’s funeral in Montreal.
“Cantor Emil went beyond being a cantor. He was kind, selfless, generous with his time, and became your friend. He always saw the good in everything and everybody,” said Yellin.
Berkovits passed away on July 24 in Delray Beach, Fla. He was 83.
Berkovits was born into a family that boasted four generations of cantors. After he regained his voice, he worked to become the fifth generation: he performed in concerts, operas, and Yiddish theater both as a soloist and with his father and brother.
However, Berkovits initially wanted to break with family tradition by becoming a baseball player. Two of his principal passions were sports and Judaism, which was perfectly symbolized the day that he wore a track uniform under his dress clothes, then ran three miles after services to compete in a race he won. He made it back to Havdalah services just in time.
An injury prevented Berkovits from becoming a professional athlete, so he embraced his other passion. He studied business and music at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, where his family relocated after the war, and then attended McGill University Conservatory of Music nearby.
Denbo, who also grew up in Montreal, said that they often spoke about their hometown together.
“He went to the high school that was my middle school,” said Denbo. “We bonded over that, and he became a personal friend. He was a dear friend who touched lives.”
He served as a cantor for congregations in Chicago, Montreal, and Omaha.
Berkovits arrived at Temple Beth El in Swampscott in 2004, just before it merged with Temple Israel to create Congregation Shirat Hayam. He was originally hired for just a year, but the congregation asked him to stay on, and he continued until 2015.
When Berkovits and his wife Lili retired to Florida, he was a part-time cantor at Temple Torat Emet in Boynton Beach. At Shirat Hayam, he helped lead services, led a choral group, trained students for their bat mitzvahs, and more.
“Cantor Emil was an everyday presence at the synagogue. The word that comes to mind is ‘conscientious,’” said Shirat Hayam congregant and Jewish educator Sue Weiss, who sang in his Kol Ishah music group and lived next door to him. “I think what made him loved by his community and what was so unique about him was his compassion and thoughtfulness – and his quiet nature and lack of any need for glory.
“Cantor Emil’s sweet and emotionally filled voice might be gone, but the memory of this loyal friend and very special cantor and human being will be a blessing forever.”
Cantor Berkovits is survived by his wife, Lili; his children Brian (Brissa) Berkovits, Joel Miller, Anne (Brian Glasberg) Miller, and Debbie Baigrie; his six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren; and his brother, Cantor Edward (Roz) Berkovits.