New spiritual leader recalls musical path to Altoona

Cantor Benjamin Matis is the new spiritual leader at Agudath Achim Congregation. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Cantor Benjamin Matis believes in celebrating his Jewish heritage, but he didn’t always see life that way.

Growing up in Long Island, he attended services from time to time, but he was not devoted to his faith.

His goal was to be an opera singer.

“I wanted to be the Jewish Pavarotti,” Matis said.

Then his love of music put him on a path that led to curiosity about Judiasm and the rich heritage that is part of his life. As a result, he eventually became a cantor and now oversees a synagogue.

Matis, his wife, Stefanie, and daughter, Shoshana, recently moved to Altoona, where he serves as the new spiritual leader at Agudath Achim Congregation. A son, Jacob, is a student at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

The journey to his current position began in early adulthood.

Matis, a tenor, studied music in his 20s at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore where he obtained an undergraduate degree and discovered Hebrew music.

“I liked it more than Verdi, but I didn’t know a thing about it,” Matis said. “It pulled at the Jew in my soul. It reached something inside of me that I didn’t feel before. It was powerful.”

It made him want to know more — to study Hebrew and the history of the words he was singing. Eventually, he earned a degree from the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“I wanted to be good at it,” Matis explained for his willingness to pursue more post-graduate work at the seminary, even though he had previously obtained a master of arts in music history from Queens College of the City University of New York.

“I wanted to be as professional as I can be,” he said. “The liturgy deserves it.”

His studies have served him well. Before coming to Altoona, Matis served as a cantor in New York for about 16 years. Then, he and his family moved to Overland Park, Kansas, where they lived for the past two years. There, Matis was a contributing editor on a history book about the Jews in Kansas, taught a class called “Music in Jewish Culture” at the University of Kansas and served as cantor at a synagogue.

When working on the book, he learned about a tie between Kansas and his metropolitan hometown. Bloomingdale’s, which has its flagship department store in New York, actually started in Leavenworth, Kansas.

A student of history, Matis believes Jews should know about their culture and past whether they are religious or not.

“This is their birthright,” he said. “They have a lot to be proud of in their history. Even if they don’t agree with it, it is worth knowing about. It’s our culture.”

He said throughout history, the Jews have not only survived but thrived despite numerous times when they faced adversity.

The comedy that is part of Jewish culture may have developed during those times. Matis said the Jews could either cry or laugh when they were powerless to do anything about their circumstances, so they tried to laugh.

As a way to appreciate and learn about their culture, Matis invites Jews to take part in communal activities such as the congregation’s book club, the Jewish Film Festival or the fall Sukkot festival.

“It’s one of the most fun Jewish holidays,” said Matis of the harvest celebration that includes the building of booths as a reminder that the Israelite people lived in booths in the desert.

“In the Jewish liturgy, Sukkot means ‘the time of joy,'” he said.

In addition to serving the Jewish community, Matis said he wants to reach out to Christians and build relationships with the churches in town.

“It is important that we find common ground,” he said.

And while he has had opportunities to sing in live operas, Matis no longer aims at being the next Pavarotti.

“I wanted to be an opera singer, but God had other plans,” he said.