In December 2011, as Cantor David Frommer waited to be deployed from San Francisco to the Middle East as a lay chaplain with the Army National Guard, he told J. that “down the road, I want to be a congregational cantor.” Now Frommer, 33, is exactly that, at Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa. But that’s only part of the story.
Before his Army service, Frommer served with the Israel Defense Forces from November 2004 to January 2006, and he will be the guest speaker Sunday, March 1 at a showing of “Beneath the Helmet” at Temple Israel of Alameda.
The film traces five young people as they make the transition from student to IDF soldier. Northern California Shomrim, a nonprofit fraternal organization of Jewish law enforcement personnel, is sponsoring the showing. Lisa Herman, a police officer in Los Angeles and a former IDF soldier, is also participating.
Calling the film “very well done,” Frommer said, “My talk will focus on my experience during my Israeli army training and the extent to which the movie portrays that.”
During his chaplaincy service with the Army National Guard, he spent a year in Afghanistan and Kuwait meeting with Jewish soldiers and civilians.
“Usually, low-ranking junior chaplains are responsible for the units they deploy with, a minority of whom are Jewish,” Frommer said. “Because I was not deployed with a specific unit, I had the unique opportunity to supply religious support for Jewish military and civilian personnel.”
He led Passover seders for soldiers in Kabul and also visited Jewish communities throughout the Gulf region, including in Qatar and Jordan. “It was remarkable, finding all this Jewish life that was blossoming almost completely on its own, mostly through the work of dedicated lay leaders,” Frommer said. “It made me really appreciate how easy we have it, living as Jews in the U.S.”
A gifted writer, he has written about his experiences for such publications as the New York Times, the Atlantic and Tablet, an online Jewish magazine.
After returning from the Middle East, Frommer became cantor at Shomrei Torah in July 2013.
“Primarily I lead worship on Shabbat and holidays, I direct the volunteer choir and I try to be a good steward of the wonderful tradition of music that was established at the synagogue long before I got there,” Frommer said. He cited the work of cantorial soloist Leira Satlof, who built the synagogue’s music program along with Rabbi George Gittleman, whom he called “a very musical rabbi.”
That musical rabbi has high praise for Frommer. “David is a very talented person, and equally comfortable teaching not just music, but every aspect of Jewish life,” Gittleman said. “He has a great life attitude and he also is learned. He prepares, he shows up and he gives 100 percent — and he is a lot of fun.”
Before taking the job, Frommer had imagined that his primary mission as a congregational cantor would be “to undo the prevailing notion that singing in synagogue is primarily for the cantor and not for others.” That is not the case at Shomrei Torah. “I’m just there to encourage it,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be at a congregation that actively participates in worship.”
Frommer now lives in San Francisco with his wife, Rabbi Carla Fenves, who serves the city’s Congregation Emanu-El, and their 15-month-old son, Aaron. Twin girls are due in June.
When not singing with his congregants, Frommer sings to Aaron — usually Gilbert and Sullivan, Frommer’s favorites. “I have to take advantage of this time before he talks, to indoctrinate him,” he said, laughing. “I sing to him a lot.”
He also serves now in the California National Guard, reporting once a month for two or three days of training. In addition, his unit convenes for two weeks each summer. On those occasions, most of the people Frommer meets with in his role as chaplain are not Jewish.
“That’s not a problem,” he said. “Most soldiers who come to the chaplain come with issues either financial or domestic. If a person has more specific religious needs that I can’t provide, my job is to put the soldier in touch with a military chaplain with the soldier’s same faith background.”
In a way, Frommer considers his chaplaincy post an opportunity to act as an ambassador for Judaism. He also would like to see more Jews enlist.
“It’s no secret that Jew are not highly represented in our military right now, and that’s problematic in some ways,” he said. “Military service is a valuable contribution to our nation, and I hope the Jewish community will re-examine that.”
What’s next for Frommer? “I’m only out of cantorial school for 31⁄2 years. I’m still young, and I have a lot to learn,” he said. “My focus now is to continue to develop as a military chaplain and congregational cantor.”
“Beneath the Helmet” screens at a dinner and Havdallah event beginning 6 p.m. Sunday, March 1 at Temple Israel of Alameda, 3183 Mecartney Road. Cost is $18. Register at www.shomrim.clubexpress.com.