Last year, cantorial soloist Steve Dropkin reached out to his longtime friend Rabbi Jack Paskoff.
He got much more than a catch-up session.
“He said he and his wife were moving to central Pennsylvania and he was hoping to make a meaningful contribution to Jewish life,” said Paskoff, who leads Congregation Shaarai Shomayim at 75 E. James St.
The congregation readily found the funds for the position, but Paskoff wasn’t sure they would stretch beyond a year. So he started raising seed money for another year.
“I’m from Long Island and a lifelong Mets fan,” Paskoff said. “But I agreed to wear a Phillies baseball cap all summer long if the congregation would donate to pay Dropkin.”
Dropkin began serving Shaarai Shomayim in July. Besides leading music for the Friday night Shabbat services, he also works with students and oversees the religious school music program, Sh’arim.
Paskoff has served the congregation for about 28 years, beginning when he was just five years out of rabbinical school.
A life in song
Dropkin has led a peripatetic life, living across the country, working in a variety of professions from finance and sales to music, ultimately recording six albums of original Jewish music.
His music is published by the American Conference of Cantors in its “Cantor’s Lifecycle Manual.” Transcontinental Music Publishing, the largest publisher of Jewish music in the world, has included more than three dozen of his songs in numerous projects.
For 10 years, Dropkin traveled around the country performing for several congregations. Later, he served congregations in Florida, California and central Pennsylvania.
“I turned my hobby into my profession,” said Dropkin, who recently moved from California to Annville, near his in-laws in Palmyra.
Paskoff and Dropkin met in 1979 at a youth retreat at Eisner Camp, part of the Union for Reform Judaism, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. There, Paskoff, then a senior in high school, served as a youth leader. Dropkin, then a senior in college, served as a song leader.
“One of the things the camp always prided itself on was music,” Paskoff said. “Things that are now traditional in the Reform Movement were camp music 40 years ago.”
“It was a revolution of writing our own music,” Dropkin added. “We built a two-way bridge from camp to worship services and back to camp.”
Eisner, with about 650 campers, from third grade to college, and staff, ages 21-25, is one of 14 similar camps across the country.
“We were responsible for programming, emotional support and health and safety,” Paskoff said.
Dropkin noted that he has about 4,500 Facebook friends and a quarter of them are from the camping community.
“Many, many of them have become professional Jews — teachers, rabbis and cantors,” he said of the former campers.
When the pandemic began, Dropkin put together a live, old-style camp sing-along on Facebook for Eisner alumni.
“I expected 30 to 40 people to log on,” Dropkin said. “More than 150 did. That’s the deep roots this camp music has. It still speaks to people 40 to 50 years later.”
“This is comfort food,” Paskoff added.
At camp, Dropkin and Paskoff became friends while sitting at the same table for Friday night dinners. In 1995, they began seeing each other at biannual conferences of the Union for Reform Judaism, with 4,000 to 5,000 people.
“We would sing, pray and talk about the direction of the movement,” Paskoff said. “Guest speakers have been Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Biden — who, after serving as vice president, said he was never going to run for office again — and Obama. ... We’re just hanging out together.”
Due to COVID-19, Dropkin has yet to perform in the sanctuary at Shaarai Shomayim. The congregation currently worships on Zoom.
“I’m still having difficulty creating community, trying to make a two-dimensional experience into a three-dimensional community,” Dropkin says. “But at least people can see each other. We can have people lose themselves for a while.”