When Cantor Elias Rosemberg arrived in Massachusetts from Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2001, he revitalized Friday night services with his inimitable spirit and irresistible enthusiasm at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill. For the past 15 years, Rosemberg has been the heart and soul of Shabbat Alive at Temple Emanuel in Newton. What was once a sparsely attended prayer service at the temple now regularly attracts over 200 people weekly who sing along and clap to the live music. “What I learned and experienced growing up in Buenos Aires is something I want to give to the next generation, so that is how Shabbat Alive started,” Rosemberg recently told JewishBoston.

Beginning in the 1960s, musical instruments on Shabbat were the norm in Argentina’s Conservative synagogues. In the United States, the Conservative movement had been grappling with the inclusion of live music in its liturgy since 1958. In some synagogues and temples, organ music was allowed. In 2008, a responsum broadly advocating for musical instruments in Shabbat services was considered by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. However, including live music on Shabbat and holidays has yet to be formally adopted as halacha, or Jewish law.


Rosemberg recalled that when he started at Temple Emanuel, he presented a proposal to the board to institute the weekly Shabbat Alive services. As a result, the board approved live music on Shabbat with the caveat that there be an alternative prayer space with no musical instruments. In response, the temple offers a non-instrumental Friday night service in its chapel.

Rosemberg comes from a musical family. His father was a klezmer musician in Buenos Aires, playing the clarinet and saxophone at celebratory events throughout the city. His mother has a beautiful singing voice and filled their home with song. Rosemberg’s father often played cantorial records—a memory that Rosemberg cherishes. “It was wonderful exposure to the great cantorial art,” he said. Rosemberg and his brother attended the music conservatory. In addition to studying voice and piano, Rosemberg emulated his father and took clarinet lessons until he favored singing over playing the woodwind.

Elias Rosemberg as “Elvis Pharoah” in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (Courtesy photo: Temple Emanuel)
Cantor Elias Rosemberg as “Elvis Pharoah” in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (Courtesy photo: Temple Emanuel)

Rosemberg grew up in the Conservative movement, which American rabbi Marshall T. Meyer  brought to Argentina when he founded the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano in 1962. Along with training Jewish clergy and granting degrees in Jewish studies, Rosemberg, a graduate of the Seminario’s cantorial school, said Meyer’s initial goal was “to create a movement where he brought the ruach, or spirit, of Camp Ramah to praying in the synagogue.”

Rosemberg integrates the spirit of Jewish camp into Shabbat Alive. He leads services with Rabbi Michelle Robinson, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, and a rotating group of singers, including teens and adults. The hour-long service covers the full traditional liturgy. “There’s no skipping,” Rosemberg said. The setup is intentional, with the four leaders seated in a half circle rather than standing at lecterns. The musical offerings feature American, Argentinian and Israeli composers with a mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi melodies. The spirit of inclusion also abounds in the service. For example, the congregation uses Siddur Eit Ratzon, which transliterates the Hebrew.

“People find using a siddur offering transliteration much more approachable, allowing them to follow the liturgy and participate in the music,” he said. “I strongly believe when we conduct religious services, the melodies have to reflect what is written in the text. So, when you are in the service, you hear several upbeat melodies, then we go to a few settings that are much calmer and more reflective. However, we strike a balance so that everything is not slow or upbeat.” Rosemberg said such intentionality exposes congregants to different backgrounds and styles of Jewish music and makes for a richer experience.

With his rich baritone voice, the cantor is also the mainstay of Temple Emanuel’s annual signature concerts, “Hanukkah Happens” and “Project Manna.” At the former, Rosemberg has teamed up with the Zamir Chorale of Boston every Dec. 24 to sing Jewish choral music. The Project Manna concert, which takes place between Purim and Passover, raises funds for the Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church to serve hot meals to over 200 people weekly. The event celebrates Jewish and Black musical traditions.

Cantor Elias Rosemberg with the “Fiddler on the Roof” cast (Courtesy photo: Temple Emanuel)
Cantor Elias Rosemberg with the “Fiddler on the Roof” cast (Courtesy photo: Temple Emanuel)

A few years ago, Rosemberg added a Thanksgiving concert to the roster on the Sunday following the holiday. “I didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving,” he said. “When I came to America, I experienced it as a beautiful tradition. I thought a musical event would enhance the four-day weekend.” Rosemberg has included the music of Jewish composers on Broadway and klezmer and cantorial music in the program. At the last Thanksgiving concert, he invited the Shul Sisters, a trio of women cantors, to participate. “The Thanksgiving concert,” he said, “allows creativity that is outside the box.” In that spirit, he is planning a concert for Israel’s 75th anniversary.

Rosemberg introduced and produced the temple’s annual musical featuring congregants and staff. Pre-pandemic, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Fiddler on the Roof” played to enthusiastic audiences. The cantor did a star turn in “Joseph” as “Elvis Pharoah.” Next on deck is “Hello Dolly,” initially postponed because of COVID. But Rosemberg hopes to produce the play next year.

More innovations from the cantor include an annual synagogue-wide seder on the second night of Passover. He grew up with a similar communal seder integrating musical numbers backed by a band. He and Robinson have led the seder for over 300 people since its inception seven years ago. Rosemberg has also led synagogue trips to experience Jewish life in Argentina, Spain and, this coming summer, Italy. “I could not have done any of these concerts or trips without the support of my clergy, colleagues and the Temple Emanuel board,” said Rosemberg.

And it is abundantly clear that Cantor Rosemberg’s beautiful voice, and his generosity, have immeasurably enriched everyone’s prayer experience and music appreciation at Temple Emanuel and beyond.