Cantor Robert Kieval, who served as senior cantor at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville from 1977 to 2001, died on Jan. 23. Upon his retirement, he was elected hazzan emeritus by the congregation. More recently, he served on the faculty at the Jewish Theological Seminary and led popular virtual classes through the Cantors Assembly.
Kieval studied hazzanut at Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Active in the affairs of the Cantors Assembly, he ultimately served as its president. He has also served on the board of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and was the first cantor to serve on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement.
Rabbi Matthew Simon, rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel, called Cantor Kieval, “a loving interpreter of the words of the prayer book in music and melody. To be at a service with him was a special joy,” Simon said.
As a youth, Kieval came under the influence and tutelage of Hazzan Charles B. Bloch, who urged him to pursue the study of Hebrew and hazzanut. He began the study of vocal technique with Professor Mario Rubini-Reichlin, prominent voice teacher and formerly professor at the Vienna Conservatory. A few years later, also at the urging of Hazzan Bloch, he entered Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, School of Sacred Music, where he studied hazzanut under such great masters as Hazzan Israel Alter, Hazzan Lawrence Avery and Moshe Ganchoff.
Subsequently, he studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary–Cantors Institute under Professor/Hazzan Max Wohlberg and later advanced Hazzanic studies with Hazzan Moshe Ganchoff. He continued studying voice with Mario Rubini–Reichlin until his death, after which he studied with Jerome LoMonaco, formerly leading tenor with the New York City Opera Company.
Kieval “believed in Jewish music as a significant cultural and spiritual force — and his life became a testament to those values,” said Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer, rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel.
Hazzan Kieval served as shaliach tzibur of Congregation Ahavath Achim, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Jamaica Estates Hebrew Center, Jamaica Estates, N.Y.; and Marathon Jewish Community Center, Douglaston, N.Y.; before his quarter-century tenure at B’nai Israel.
Schnitzer called him “the consummate hazzan. Gifted with a vast knowledge of the Jewish liturgical tradition, he had the ability to touch the heart with the power and passion of his magnificent voice. Hazzan Kieval also mentored a generation of bar and bat mitzvah students and instilled in them a deep respect for the trope system of Torah and haftarah chanting.
During his tenure as hazzan of B’nai Israel Congregation he also chaired a monthly lunch and learn program for the students and faculty of the Cantors Institute of JTS (now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School).
He was married for 46 years to the pre-eminent singer and musician Gayna Sauler Kieval, who led the synagogue choir. In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons: Moshe Zev Kieval, his wife, Eden, and their nine children, Ora Tzvia, Chayala, Yosef, Sara’le, Devora, Bracha, Judah Aryeh, Michoel and Levi; and his second son, Joshua Hanan, and his wife, Maria.
“Cantor Kieval had already retired from B’nai Israel by the time I arrived in the community in 2002, but I knew his name and reputation well,” said Senior Rabbi Michael Safra. “Cantor Kieval had a beautiful and powerful tenor voice, and his knowledge and reverence for both musical and liturgical traditions were immense. It is no surprise that more than 20 years after the cantor’s retirement, members of the B’nai Israel community are still devastated.”