Cantor Matt Axelrod

Beverly-born cantor returns home to B’nai Abraham for High Holidays

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Beverly-born cantor returns home to B’nai Abraham for High Holidays

Cantor Matt Axelrod

Cantor Matt Axelrod – untethered to a pulpit for the first time in three decades – is coming home.

Since graduating from cantorial school in 1993, the Beverly native has spent the last 33 years as the cantor at Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, N.J. This year, he started a new position as the executive director of the Cantors Assembly, and with his Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah plans newly free, Axelrod leaped at the chance to come back and lead services at Temple B’nai Abraham, his childhood synagogue in Beverly.

Growing up on the North Shore, Axelrod was always a lover of music and Jewish community. Driven by the mentorship of two North Shore greats – Cantor Morton Shanok, who used to lead High Holiday services at Temple B’nai Abraham, and Cantor Sam Pessaroff of Temple Ner Tamid – Axelrod graduated from Brandeis University in 1988 and went straight to cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“It’s a little unusual,” he said. “I found that most people did something else or took a break, and then went back to cantorial school … but there were a couple things that I was very good at and very interested in and were passions in my life. One of them was being active in a synagogue and the other, music. It became an obvious synergy.”

While studying at JTS, Axelrod began a student pulpit in Scotch Plains, remaining as the congregation’s only full-time cantor until this year, when he started at the Cantors Assembly in July. In his return to B’nai Abraham, Axelrod looks forward to the challenge of doing something deeply familiar in a new place.

“I’ve been doing one thing almost the same way for so many years,” he said. “It’s exciting for me to get to do that and be in front of new people in a new space. Maybe some tunes that I know very well and have been singing for decades, people will never have heard before, and I’m going to get a whole new reaction … I’m really looking forward to having that opportunity.”

Axelrod has deep roots at B’nai Abraham. He grew up with his father, Saul, devotedly attending services there, chairing the ritual committee, and even acting as president for a time. His mother, Muriel, served a key role as the mashgiach (kosher supervisor) and kitchen coordinator for years.

“In many ways, the temple was our second home,” he said. “We were there all the time.”

Both of Axelrod’s parents passed away in the last 10 years, and his brother Howie, who led High Holiday services at B’nai Abraham in the past, passed away in November 2022. Axelrod’s other brother, Rob, lives in Manhattan.

“It’s going to be a homecoming,” Axelrod said. “I’m anticipating it’s going to be a little emotional for me, because of the history that I have there, and my family’s history in the temple … but it couldn’t have worked out better and more meaningfully for me to end up there for High Holidays.”

Rabbi Alison Adler, who is entering her 13th year at B’nai Abraham, recalled the impact that Axelrod’s father had on the community, and herself. “When I first came, I was their first woman rabbi,” she said. “[Matt’s father] became a big support for me. His recognition, his support, his kindness, especially when I was new was really, really important … I feel that kind of kindness in Matt.”

B’nai Abraham b’nai mitzvahs have used Axelrod’s book, “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah,” for many years, so in addition to his family chops, Adler knew that Axelrod was a funny and charismatic guy – something she looks forward to taking advantage of this year.

“He’s got a great sense of humor, he’s dynamic,” said Adler. “It’s exciting for me to know that I can actually step away from the service at certain points to go visit kids, and he can run things.”

For much of the last decade, B’nai Abraham has benefited from individual soloists leading High Holiday services, not ordained cantors like Axelrod. This is part of why Adler feels she’ll be able to lean on his leadership a bit more.

In preparation for his role in B’nai Abraham’s services this September, Axelrod will be leading a zoom class for B’nai Abraham congregants before Rosh Hashanah, giving them a chance to get to know him and to learn some of the melodies, or nussach, that he will be bringing to the temple this year.

“People have been wanting something new for “Avinu Malkeinu” for years,” Adler said, chuckling. “He’s going to be able to bring that.”

One Response

  1. I can’t wait for the high holidays! I don’t remember saying that in the past. Watching Cantor Matt on YouTube really shows us how much he will bring to the services. So many families know him or knew his family. Just a great family. Welcome!

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