‘A force of nature’

‘A force of nature’

Remembering Cantor Ilan Mamber of Beth Rishon

Cantor Ilan Mamber combined social work skills with his love of music to help bring harmony and energy to the Beth Rishon community. (Mark Niederman)
Cantor Ilan Mamber combined social work skills with his love of music to help bring harmony and energy to the Beth Rishon community. (Mark Niederman)

Cantor Ilan Mamber of Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, who died suddenly at 70 on July 31, was so full of life that this sentence seems impossible. It does not compute

Ilan Mamber was a physically small man who exuded so much energy and vitality that he seemed almost like a human generator, humming with electricity.

And, of course, with music.

There are some people who are beloved by their community, although probably not as many who are as well loved during their lives as they are in the retelling, safely after their deaths. Cantor Mamber, though — he was at the very heart and provided the soul of Beth Rishon; partnered with Rabbi Kenneth Emert, another beloved man, who retired last year, he shaped the community as it is today.

Ilan Mamber’s parents, Chana Steinbruch and Arthur Mamber, escaped from Germany in the mid 1930s; their parents saw what was coming. Chana and Arthur met in Palestine — Arthur fought in the war for independence, and was part of the convoy that ferried supplies to Jerusalem. Ilan was born in the new state of Israel in 1947. His musical talent was clear even when he was a child; he sang in synagogue choirs and sometimes as a soloist.

The family moved from Israel to the Bronx, and then Brooklyn, when Ilan was about 11. He continued to sing. A true child of the 1960s, he bought a guitar and quickly learned how to play it; in fact, as his friends report, there almost always was a guitar either in his hand, or, if that was not possible, then by his side. He played folk music and Israeli music and just about everything else.

Cantor Mamber loved people as much as he loved music, and he was drawn to help them, so after college — Brooklyn College, where he majored, perhaps surprisingly, in math — he earned a master’s degree from Wurzweiler, Yeshiva University’s social work school, and worked in Jewish communal institutions. He also kept on singing and performing, including stints on a cruise ship.

In 1975, he met another social worker, Carol Siegel; soon they married. They were the parents of Noah, who lives in Washington now, and of Aliza, who lives in Arlington. It was a close-knit family; the love among them was palpable. 

Meanwhile, Cantor Mamber “worked as a social worker and administrator at the Hebrew Educational Society in Canarsie,” in Brooklyn, Michael Goldberg of Franklin Lakes, Beth Rishon’s president, said. “The story is that a friend of his knew someone who knew someone with a connection to Yale, and he knew that Yale Hillel was looking for a cantor to fill in on the High Holidays. He recommended Ilan.”

That did it. Ilan Mamber realized that he loved cantorial work. He loved leading services. He loved the spirituality that the music evoked in him and in the community. He loved leading the community. And he loved the way his social work skills combined with his musicality and musical knowledge to make him a better cantor.

Cantor Mamber studied with his mentor, Cantor Noah Schall, who was Orthodox, and who gave him private ordination.

In 1987, Ilan Mamber went to Beth Rishon, where he flourished.

“The two of us worked together for 22 years,” said Rabbi Emert, Beth Rishon’s rabbi emeritus. Rabbi Emert now lives in California, but flew back to New Jersey as soon as he heard about Cantor Mamber’s death, and spoke at his funeral. “We knew each other’s steps off and on the pulpit. Our rhythm was in sync with each other. We could appreciate each other’s unique talents and laugh at one another’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies.

“When I first arrived at Beth Rishon, I called him into my office, and in my stern rabbinic voice, I said, ‘I want you to know that there can be only one rabbinic voice here, and that will be me.’

“Little did I know who I was talking to. He really was in charge. He was short in physical stature, but you shouldn’t let that fool you. He was as soft as a lion in the jungle.

“And he was beloved beyond belief.”

Rabbi Emert has 22 years’ worth of stories about Cantor Mamber. “He was always there for people,” he said. “There was a man who had just had bowel surgery, just come out of the hospital. Ilan showed up at the guy’s door at 8 the next morning, and said ‘Get up. We’re going walking.’ The guy said, ‘What are you? Meshugeh? I just got out of the hospital.’” But Ilan Mamber being Ilan Mamber, he won. And “he continued to do that, to show up at this man’s door at 8 in the morning, every single day for the next few weeks,” Rabbi Emert said.

This was not a unique story, and it was only the start of an entirely average, very long day for Cantor Mamber. “He would play tennis or exercise, then run to the office” — that’s as in literally run, not drive — “and he would work with adult bat mitzvah students and bar and bat mitzvah students and work with his interns and then come and train the choir, they’d work for two hours, and then he’d come to the board meeting, and he’d work in the preschool and he’d go to shiva minyans and baby namings and have meetings with brides and grooms and then he’d go to the temple book club, and he’d be the last person out of the building. He’d be the one to lock the door. And then he’d go home to cook for his wife.

“Nothing was too much for this guy,” Rabbi Emert said. “He had an indefatigable spirit. He was a living example of resilience. He lived with passion and enthusiasm.”

And then there was his motorcycle, which Cantor Mamber would ride everywhere; in fact, he was part of a motorcycle club called Hillel’s Angels. He rode it not only for fun but also for transportation. “He would ride it to funerals and to weddings,” Rabbi Emert said. “He would ride it if he was going to do a wedding or a funeral on Long Island, to beat the traffic and get there faster.

“He would get off the motorcycle, take off the helmet, and he’d be there with his suit on and his book in his hand, ready for the funeral.”

At Cantor Mamber’s own funeral, Rabbi Emert said, “Every exit on Routes 208 and 4 were closed. There were police everywhere. That is a tribute given only to a dignitary. It was pouring pouring pouring out. And then all of a sudden we get to the grave, and the rain stops, and it is hot, and we are standing there singing niggunim and shoveling the grave. The love for this man was so deep. People are grieving.”

Cantor Mamber was an enthusiastic member of the Cantors Assembly, for Conservative movement cantors. Beth Rishon is unaffiliated; Cantor Mamber, like Rabbi Emert, lived enthusiastically in the space between the Reform and Conservative worlds, equally at home in both, connecting with both, adhering blindly to neither.

Gale S. Bindelglass of Franklin Lakes, a member of Beth Rishon, sang with Cantor Mamber for 23 years, at times as part of the Beth Rishon Trio, she said. She was particularly moved by the way he would take the group across the state, down to Brick and Lakewood, to sing for Holocaust survivors. “No place was too far away for him, and no rehearsals were too long for him,” she said. “We sang a mixture of English and Hebrew and Yiddish, and he understood the souls of Holocaust survivors.”

In music, as in everything else, he demanded excellence, both of himself and of others. That theme comes up frequently as people remember him.

He also sang lighter music. “Our synagogue had a rock ’n’ roll band for 26 years, all temple members, called Jimmy and the Templetones.” Why Jimmy? “Jimmy was a drummer, and Ilan thought that Ilan and the Templetones didn’t sound as good,” Ms. Bindelglass said. “We were a cover band; we did music from the 50s to the present. We did everything from doo-wop through Green Day and Adele. There was barely a song we didn’t cover.

“He was so authentic. We had hours and hours of rehearsals. The man just never stopped. He took so much pleasure in what we produced. He would look for sparks of talent and cultivate them.” The band would play for synagogue dances, and “sometimes we would have 200 people dancing, and we would just keep playing and they would keep dancing.

“One time there was a blizzard, and people still came,” she said.

Cantor Mamber never forgot that he was Israeli, Ms Bindelglass said “He was involved in Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron. Everyone gets Yom Ha’atzmaut,” Israeli independence day, “but no one outside the Israeli community gets Yom Hazikaron,” which commemorates all the soldiers who have died protecting Israel, from its birth till now. “Every Israeli has some heartbreak, everyone lost someone to war or terrorism, but it was Cantor Mamber who brought it to the larger community. Now about 500 people show up every year, and there is some catharsis when other people stand side by side with the Israeli community. Nobody did that before Ilan Mamber.

“And he didn’t grandstand. He never would stand there and put his arms out and say ‘I brought this to the community.’ He was so humble about it.

“And the band was so much fun,” she added. “And he never, ever missed tennis!”

Michael Goldberg of Franklin Lakes, Beth Rishon’s president, was profoundly shaken by Cantor Mamber’s death. “He was a force of nature,” he said. “He squeezed every second out of every day.

“He was always late,” he continued. “I say this affectionately. It was because he always tried to be in two places at once.”

Cantor Mamber seemed to have learned how to put more hours in a day than the standard 24, Mr. Goldberg suggested.

“As president, I knew how many hours he put in at the synagogue, and with the choir and the Cantors Assembly and the this and the that, and going to see his two children, who live in or near Washington, he would always manage to read the books for the book club.

“I would say, ‘Ilan, when do you have time to read a book?’ I still don’t know how he did it. And it wasn’t as if he was skimming them. He was really reading those books.”

Mr. Goldberg ended with a story he heard at Cantor Mamber’s funeral. He and Carol had a friend, a woman with whom he played tennis, and the two of them decided to try Sukkot services in Manhattan one year. “So he told her that he’d pick her up. It was Sukkot, so she had a lulav and an etrog. She was standing outside her house, holding them, when he pulled up to pick her up.

“He was on his motorcycle.

“She said ‘What am I going to do with the lulav and etrog?’ He said, ‘Just hold onto them.’

“I love the image of them going over the George Washington Bridge like that, on the motorcycle, with the lulav and etrog. It’s like a Jewish Easy Rider.

“He was such a unique person. It was just so natural for him.

“He touched so many people,” Mr. Goldberg said.

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