When he took over as cantor of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, Asa Fradkin learned he wouldn’t have a designated parking spot. And that’s fine with him.
None of the Conservative congregation’s leadership gets a spot. Fradkin, 36, says that’s emblematic of Beth El’s egalitarian, collaborative attitude.
“I can’t think of a stronger statement than that,” Fradkin says. “Nobody who walks into the shul is more important than the last person that walked in.”
Fradkin moved to the area with his wife, Sarah, and two children, Dafna and Noam, over the summer. He’s taking over from Chazzan Matt Klein, who was with the synagogue for six years before moving to Ohio. Fradkin says that since starting, he’s worked to add a more musical —and therefore accessible — service and helped build Beth El’s youth and teen choirs.
Fradkin spent his early childhood with his parents on an ashram outside of Philadelphia. He learned yoga and meditation there, and was introduced to spiritual chanting and singing.
At 7, he moved with his family to Baltimore. Fradkin says he learned how important it is to develop young congregants’ interest in Judaism and music from Beth Weiner, who was the cantor at Beth Am Synagogue, where the family joined.
“Her ability to relate to younger people like me left a very strong impression on me,” he says of Weiner. “That’s what a cantor really is.”
But it didn’t occur to him to become a cantor until college. He was studying French horn performance at Indiana University when he got involved in the campus Hillel. He met students who had common interests and backgrounds, inspiring him to live a more traditional Jewish life.
So Fradkin switched from French horn to vocal studies, and it was off to the races. He led Jewish services and enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s cantorial school after graduating from Indiana. He was ordained in 2007.
He worked at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Conn., for 10 years. But he wanted to be closer to his family in Maryland. It worked. His father and his brother’s family are planning to join Congregation Beth El. He also wanted to be part of an active and passionate community, qualities he sees in Beth El.
“There are so many people putting time and effort into our success,” he says. “So we count a great deal upon our membership to lead us and to carry us forward. And we know that’s the only way to be successful in a sustainable way.”