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Biographical Information

Cantor Herbert I. Epstein was born in Newark, New Jersey. Starting in 1955, he was Cantor at Peninsula Temple Beth El, in San Mateo,California, for thirty years. After retiring in 1984, he was Cantor Emeritus at the temple for about fifteen years. On February 25, 1999, after a long illness, he passed away at age 72. He left us a lasting legacy of sacred music, spirituality, humanity, love of Judaism, and good humor.

When he was nine years old, he sang in a Jewish Orthodox Choir in Newark which was conducted by his father, Harry Epstein. He was a member and conductor of many choirs throughout his life. Music was an instrumental piece of his life, so to speak.

Herbert majored in music at the Arts High School in Newark. After serving in the Navy for two years, he took piano lessons from Rosalie Swet, a prominent piano instructor in Newark. She was the teacher of famed pianist Julius Katchen. In 1946, he studied at the Julliard School of Music which included Piano instruction from Olga Samaroff, the wife of conductor Leopold Stokowski; then, he entered New York University (NYU).

At NYU, he studied music including Voice instruction from Harold Luckstone. In early 1952, he received his B.S. in Education, with a major in Music, from the NYU School of Education. He then entered the Hebrew Union College in New York City and studied at their Jewish Institute of Religion. Some of the people he studied with at HUC were reknowned figures in Jewish Music, including A.W. Binder (Cantillation), Moshe Ganchoff (Chazzanut), Gershon Ephros (Nusach Hat'filah), Herbert Fromm (Practica & Workshops), Isadore Freed (Modal Harmony), Lazar Weiner (Yiddish Repetoire), and Dr. Eric Werner (Liturgy and Jewish Music History). In May of 1955, he received his Bachelors of Sacred Music and was invested as a Cantor. It did not take him long to practice his profession, for on August 1, 1955, he became Cantor at Temple Beth El.

In 1980, he received his Masters in the Art of Teaching (M.A.T.), with a major in Music, from the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, California. During the mid-80s, he studied electronic music at San Francisco State. In November, 1998, he received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College.

Herbert was married to Roslyn Epstein, an accomplished artist, singer, and loving mother of two children, David & Jonathan. He enjoyed studying and conversing in many languages (he was proficient in Hebrew, Spanish, Italian and French, and also knew some Yiddish and Ladino). He also loved the inner workings of language itself and had an interest in language and word origins. When he wasn't immersed in composing music on his Macintosh and studying languages, Herb enjoyed culinary delights, art, walking his dog Kelev Lavan, and catching up on current events in Israel (he had visited there several times, and spent a 6 month sabbatical in Jerusalem in 1979).

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Cantor at Peninsula Temple Beth El

Herbert Epstein became the first Cantor at Peninsula Temple Beth El in 1955 where he served until 1984. He was Cantor alongside Rabbi Sanford E. Rosen. Rabbi Rosen and Cantor Epstein conducted weekly services on Friday evenings. Most memorable were Rabbi Rosen’s thought-provoking sermons and Cantor Epstein’s chanting of sacred prayers in Hebrew. The temple is located at 1700 Alameda De Las Pulgas, San Mateo, CA, 94403.

Cantor Epstein pioneered the Hebrew school for young students at Temple Beth El. He was an instructor of Hebrew at the temple until his retirement. He also started the Bar Mitzvah program at the temple and successfully trained, tutored, coached, and mentored nearly 1000 Bar and Bat Mizvah students. Many people have fond memories of Cantor Epstein and point to their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and his perpetual guidance, as their fondest memories of their Jewish youth.

In addition, Cantor Epstein started the Children’s Choir and the Adult Choir at the temple. The Adult choir, with standout soloists like Eleanor Wellman and backed by the powerful playing of organist Leslie Grow, performed a cornucopia of sacred Jewish music which reached its pinnacle during the High Holiday Services (Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). He also started the Instrumental Augmentation Group which became an integral part of the worship experience. This group was comprised of accomplished young musicians who performed alongside the choir.

Yet it was Cantor Epstein’s development of the musical liturgy, based upon the genuine Jewish tradition, which was his most noteworthy accomplishment at Temple Beth El. This music became the basis for the musical experience of Friday evening worship services, the High Holidays and life cycle events. As a concomitant part of this worship experience, he organized many recitals, including the piano recitals performed by the late Sylvia Kamin.

Cantor Epstein collaborated with many of the Bay Area Cantors, including Hans Cohn and Marty Feldman. They organized and participated in several "Cantors in Concert" performances which were memorable for their beautiful renditions of traditional and modern Jewish pieces. Cantor Epstein and his wife Roslyn performed together on many occasions. They sang wonderful duets and medleys of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. In addition, he also organized many inter-congregational concerts and had an impressive history of community involvement.

Finally, there were those wonderful summer sessions at Camp Swig in Saratoga, California, a camp for Jewish youths. People affectionately remember "Cantor Herb" at Camp Swig where he was the staff Cantor in 1968, 1970, 1972, and other years. He was a musical specialist who organized and conducted the camp choirs and instrumental groups. Yet he also participated in many unforgettable skits and plays, especially during the years that Rabbi Joe Glazer was camp director. Everyone who saw his performance as Moses, parting the Red Sea with such vibrato and fanfare, was a changed person for life!

In remembrance of his fifth Yahrzeit, the Temple paid tribute to him during the Friday service on February 25, 2004. Cantor Schwab, Joe Hansen, Rhonda Press, and the Temple choir performed a cross-section of his High Holy Days, festival, Shabbat, and children's musical arrangements. It was a beautiful tribute to him. And on March 13, 2009, in commemoration of his 10th Yahrzeit, he was honored by the Temple during the later Shabbat service. Cantorial soloist Rachel Michelberg and Organist Joe Hansen played beautiful renditions of his pieces, "Lo Yareiu" and "Ashreinu", and his setting of the "Hasidic Hatzi Kaddish".

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Professional Interests & Accomplishments

Since retiring in 1984, Herbert was Cantor Emeritus at Peninsula Temple Beth El. He continued to be active in the temple and occasionally participated in the worship services. He had a close association with Rabbi Berg and Cantor Schwab and regularly attended Rabbi Berg’s Torah Study class on Saturday mornings. During the last years of his life, he officiated several marriage ceremonies and taught classes in Jewish Music.

In recognition of his lifetime achievement for being a Cantor for 30 years, the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, School of Sacred Music, had bestowed upon him a Doctor of Music, Honoris Causa. The ceremony took place in New York on November 24, 1998. The temple had a celebration in honor of this special achievement.

His number one love, besides his family, was his musical compositions and arrangements on the Macintosh computer. This started in the mid-80s when he was a student of Dr. Herbert Bieluwa, a professor of music at San Francisco State. For over a year, he studied electronic music at SF State. They used Professional Composer, a musical software program for the Mac, which was designed by Mark of the Unicorn. It was this positive experience which led him to purchase his own Mac and Professional Composer.

For the last ten years of his life, Herbert was busy with his Jewish musical endeavors. He started HIE Publications as a vehicle to publish and promote his and other peoples’ music. He compiled, composed, arranged and edited two books which were published under HIE Publications:
1) "Chanukah - With Song is a Way of Life"
2) "Passover - The Seder Song Suite"

In addition, he composed and arranged music for other Jewish holidays, Purim plays, concerts, and life cycle events. His collection of arrangements, compositions, and compilations are a treasure of his lifetime work.

For more information, you can contact Cantor Herbert Epstein's family.

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Community Involvement

Cantor Epstein’s involvement in the Bay Area community was extensive. He led several interfaith services and choirs, most memorably during Thanksgiving. His involvement in community service activities was very noteworthy.

He participated in many benefits for a variety of causes. One benefit was a concert at Temple Beth El on behalf of local musical composer and violist Emanuel Leplin. Leplin, a student of the famed French composer Darius Milhaud, had been stricken by polio which prevented him from playing in the San Francisco Symphony. Leplin was commissioned to compose "Music for Festive Services"; his music was performed at this benefit concert which was attended by Milhaud. Leplin did receive physical therapy which allowed him to write music with three fingers.

During the mid-60s, Cantor Epstein, along with his wife Roslyn, were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Roslyn recalls attending a march while pushing her son David in a baby stroller. At a large civil rights rally at the Cow Palace, just outside of San Francisco, Cantor Epstein offered cantorial solos and participated in the black choir. Dr. Martin Luther King was in attendance. In the early 70s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, there was a massacre of student protestors at Kent State. Cantor Epstein, out of a sense of his humanity and deep distress over this tragedy, participated in the Kent State Memorial Service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. It was out of this humanity, his distress over the senseless loss of life from violence, and his love of Israel which led him to participate in memorial services for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and years later in 1995, for the assasinated prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin.

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Contact Cantor Herbert Epstein's family

E-mail address: depman1@yahoo.com

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Copyright © 1997-2013 David A. Epstein
Last revised: March 14, 2009.