by Don Simpson
|Cantor Jeff Klepper is one of the key figures in American Jewish music. He has performed throughout the USA and Israel, in England, France, Netherlands and Russia. His original songs, such as the universally beloved ‘Shalom Rav,’ are known throughout the Jewish world.
He was one of the first cantors to champion congregational singing and to use a guitar in Jewish worship. For his role in creating a contemporary Jewish musical style he has been hailed as a “pioneer,” one of a handful of people responsible for literally changing the sound of American synagogue music. His influence is reflected not only in the hundreds of cantors, songleaders, teachers, singers and musicians who regularly teach and perform his songs, but in the thousands of students, campers and shul-goers who sing them.
Raised in New York City, Klepper began playing the guitar in 1962, the year of Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ While learning to play guitar he was strongly influenced by the sing-along folk music of Pete Seeger. In 1964 he was captivated (along with the rest of the world) by the Beatles’ explosive sound and spent most of the mid-60s with his ear attached to a transistor radio.
At home and in synagogue Jeff enjoyed singing Jewish songs. His paternal grandfather and great-aunt had played music professionally, and passed down a heritage of Romanian Jewish folksongs. His extended family sang together at holiday gatherings. Prior to his bar mitzvah Jeff studied with the legendary synagogue composer Abraham Wolf Binder, gaining an early appreciation for music of the synagogue.
During his high school years in Albany, NY, Jeff became a song-leader in his NFTY region and at URJ summer camps, where he befriended a dynamic young songleader named Debbie Friedman. They, and others, forged a new Jewish song style using harmonies and rhythms borrowed from the folk-rock music of the late 1960s. While still a teen, Jeff composed his first songs and made his first musical recordings.
In the early 1970s Klepper teamed with another youth movement leader and future rabbi, Dan Freelander, to compose and perform some of the first contemporary Jewish-American song “hits”. The duo called themselves Kol B’Seder (everything’s ok). Influenced by a diverse collection of singers including the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and the late Shlomo Carlebach, they blended the sophisticated melodies and harmonies of folk-rock music of with the fervor of Israeli and chassidic song.
Their earliest compositions, such as ‘Modeh Ani’ and ‘Lo Alecha,’ were instant hits throughout NFTY and within a few years became standards in the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish youth movements, day schools, and in Israel. ‘Shalom Rav,’ composed in 1974, became the defining melody of a new style of Jewish worship, connecting past and present, young and old. Now so commonly used in services of all denominations, many regard it as a traditional melody much older than three decades. Kol B’Seder’s music thus became the bridge between the classical Reform worship style of the 1950s and a more participatory, spirited worship style of the 21st century.
After high school Jeff attended Clark University from 1971-73. Due to his frequent songleading gigs throughout the New York and New England regions he decided to make Jewish music his full time career, transferred to the School of Sacred Music in New York, and graduated from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980. Following his cantorial studies at HUC-JIR, Klepper lived in Haifa, Israel, serving as cantor at the Leo Baeck Education Center. He was cantor of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, from 1982 to 2000, and earned an M.A. in Music from Northeastern Illinois University. In 2005 he received an Honorary Doctorate from HUC-JIR in recognition of his 25th year in the cantorate.
Jeff is a past-president of the Chicago-Milwaukee Association of Cantors, and a member of the American Conference of Cantors, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and CAJE. In 1992 he joined with Debbie Friedman to create Hava Nashira, the annual song-leader training workshop in Oconomowoc, WI. He served on the Editorial Committee for, and was a music editor of, the Reform movement’s new Mishkan T’filah prayerbook. He has supported many charitable causes, notably Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger, The Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA, and the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which honored Jeff in June of 2007 for his decades of musical contributions to the Jewish community.
Jeff has performed with orchestras, choirs, jazz greats such as Howard Levy and the late Arnie Lawrence, renowned klezmer musicians Kurt Bjorling, Evan Harlan and Ilene Stahl, singers such as Peter Yarrow, Bonnie Koloc, Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman and the late Shlomo Carlebach. He has sung (and acted) alongside his friend and mentor, Theodore Bikel. His articles have been published by Alternatives in Religious Education, Sh’ma Magazine, Learn Torah With, the Union for Reform Judaism, and JVibe. His notated songs appear in two major collections, The Kol B’seder Songbook (Tara) and Songs for Growing (Transcontinental), in addition to numerous Jewish song anthologies. Of his approximately 300 songs, several dozen have been covered on CDs released by other artists and institutions.
Jeff’s Live in Concert CD reveals his warm and engaging style with audiences of all ages, and his humorous side in original parodies such as the Bob Dylan inspired ‘Cantillation Row’ and ‘Just Like a Chazzn.’ Jeff’s two other solo CDs, Yom Chadash and In This Place, offer more of his inspirational melodies, which have been called, “...the soundtrack of our search for God.”
Jeff and his family live in Boston, where he serves as cantor of Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts, and teaches in the Jewish Music Institute of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. In addition to his musical performances, he has created a series of multimedia lectures called Adventures in Jewish Pop Culture. He is currently working on a new CD and the first of a multi-volume anthology of his music for Jewish worship.