Rabbi Morton Leifman, longtime dean of JTS cantors’ school

by | May 20, 2016 | Obituaries

Rabbi Morton Leifman, who oversaw the training of Conservative movement cantors for decades, has died.

Leifman, a former vice president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and longtime dean of its Cantors Institute, now called the H.L. Miller Cantorial School, died May 5 in Rockville, Maryland. He was 89.

A Minneapolis native, Leifman began his five decade career at JTS in 1959, becoming dean of students of the Teachers Institute and director of the Joint Bet Din. He became the dean of the Cantors Institute-Seminary College of Jewish Music in 1973, and while serving as dean was named senior vice president under Chancellor Gerson Cohen. In the 1980s he was named a vice-chancellor at JTS, the title he held at the time of his retirement. He taught nusach, or cantillation, and liturgy in both the cantorial and rabbinical schools at JTS, and also made recordings of them.

Leifman was considered a master raconteur. His stories were legendary and he would regale everyone for hours, his family told JTA. Over his career he visited hundreds of congregations as scholar- in-residence, engaging audiences with his stories and knowledge of Jewish music.

“He was the seminary’s troubadour, raconteur, and carrier of an entire oral tradition of what happened inside those wrought-iron gates for well over half a century,” Shaul Magid, Tikkun’s editor for Jewish thought and culture, wrote in an appreciation on the magazine’s website.

The chancellor and board chair of JTS, Arnold Eisen and Alan Levine, respectively, called Leifman “a gifted teacher, a valued colleague, and a wise leader.”

“Rabbi Leifman’s tremendous impact on our institution and on Jewish life continues to be felt,” they wrote.

In recognition of his years of service, the seminary awarded Leifman an honorary doctorate in 1977.

Leifman was one of the first rabbis to travel behind the Iron Curtain, meeting with leaders of the Jewish community and government officials in Poland, Russia and Czechoslovakia.

He translated Yiddish poems of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that were later published in a book Leifman titled The Ineffable Name of God: Man: Poems in Yiddish and English.

Leifman was an established baal tefillah, prayer leader, by age 15. He graduated from New York University in 1950 and was ordained by JTS in 1951, working for Heschel and Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, during his student years.

After ordination, he served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army from 1952 to 1954 during the Korean War, serving at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and in France. After the army he became the founding rabbi of Beth El in Montreal from 1954 to 1959.

Leifman is survived by his wife of 54 years, Vera; four children; eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.