2017-11-08 / Voice at the Shore

For Wolbransky, serving as Shirat Hayam’s cantor has been “absolutely magical”

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


Dr. Harvey Wolbransky has been a professional cantor since age 18. Dr. Harvey Wolbransky has been a professional cantor since age 18. Since moving to the shore four years ago, Harvey Wolbransky and has wife have come to think of their new synagogue, Shirat Hayam, as family. That is why this year’s High Holidays at Shirat Hayam were particularly special for Wolbransky, who recently began serving as cantor for the Ventnor synagogue.

“It was absolutely magical,” he said of this year’s High Holidays. “The feeling I got from the congregation, the beauty of working with this Rabbi [Jonathan Kremer], was just extraordinary.”

Wolbransky, who is also an optometrist, has served as Shirat Hayam’s cantor on a volunteer basis since the departure of Hazzan Jeffrey Myers last summer. Myers, now spiritual leader of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha in Pittsburgh, left Shirat Hayam after leaders there determined they could no longer afford to pay for a cantor.

“When I found out they couldn’t afford it, I offered to step in and serve as cantor on a non-paid basis,” said Wolbransky.

The life of a cantor is nothing new to Wolbransky, who started his cantorial studies in high school. He grew up in a Conservative kosher home, with lots of Jewish family traditions and an Orthodox grandfather. “Judaism was always a big part of my life,” he explained.

His musical talent became evident to all when he started singing in the choir for his synagogue as a youth. The cantor there got to know him and became his mentor.

At age 16, Wolbransky began cantorial studies at Gratz College and also studied privately under several cantors. At 18, he was offered a full-time paid position as cantor for Congregation Chesed Shel Emet of Pottstown, PA, in 1973.

“I was their cantor there for five years while going to school,” he said. “I taught all the Bar Mitzvahs, did funerals and weddings, and was there every weekend.” During optometry school, he switched synagogues, becoming the full-time cantor for Tifereth B’nai Israel of Warrington, PA.

From the very start, he loved everything about being a cantor. “The more I did it, the more I loved it,” he said. “This was something I really wanted to do.”

His cantor’s salary was also extremely helpful to him as he pursued his education, first at Temple University and then at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry. Thanks to that salary, he was able to graduate from these schools debt-free.

Wolbransky continued serving as a professional cantor even when he first began practicing as an optometrist. How did he manage to juggle the two careers?

“Becoming an optometrist and being a full-time cantor wasn’t easy! And then I got married on top of it,” he said.

He and his wife, Natalyn, have been married 41 years and have two children, Lance and Jacqueline, as well as three grandchildren, Isabella, Brennan, and Ayla, who often come from Pennsylvania to the shore to visit over the summer.

Throughout his optometry career, Wolbransky has always worked as a cantor, either parttime or full-time. For the past 34 years, he was part-time cantor for Tifereth B’nai Israel in Bensalem, PA, where he served under four different rabbis over time.

Yet Wolbransky’s pursuits aren’t limited to being a cantor and working as an optometrist. For the past three years, he has also served as chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties. He has also served for the past 20 years as a sports medicine doctor at Temple University, where he goes periodically to take care of athletes with eye problems.

“I just don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!” joked Wolbransky, who somehow finds the time to do it all. “If it’s something important, you find the time to do it,” he explained.

For Wolbransky, being a cantor has always been an avocation rather than occupation. “I was told that if I did it for the love of doing it, it would be more meaningful.” As a result, he said, “I promised Hashem that if I could do it just for the beauty of doing it, I would—and I did.”

“The fact I am now doing it as a volunteer is really special to me,” he added. “If you are given a gift—and I feel like I was given this ability—I feel like I have to use it.”

Wolbransky also feels blessed to be able to afford to donate his time to help his synagogue in what are financially tight times for many Jewish organizations.

But perhaps the biggest blessing, said Wolbransky, is the feeling he gets when davening for his congregation at Shirat Hayam—praying with and for them, and sharing a sense of oneness with both congregants and God. “That’s a beautiful feeling,” he said. 

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