Friends, family and colleagues agree: David Morgenstern was a major presence. A big man with a big laugh, a big voice and, most importantly, a big heart.
Congregation Beth Israel Judea’s cantorial soloist passed away May 4 from an apparent heart attack in his San Francisco home. Morgenstern was 62.
“He was unbelievably kind, and funny as could be,” remembered Nancy Greenberg, incoming co-president of the San Francisco congregation and a friend of Morgenstern’s for 20 years. “He was generous with his time and wisdom. Congregants loved him.”
Added Rabbi Danny Gottlieb, who worked closely with Morgenstern: “He was a warm and loving human being. He made my work more joyful and easy.”
A longtime Beth Israel Judea congregant and trained opera singer, Morgenstern assumed the role of cantorial soloist in 2008 following the departure of Cantor Ellen Schwab. He made the most of it, learning from Henry Greenberg (a longtime Beth Israel Judea cantor) and Linda Hirschhorn (cantor at Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro).
He quickly became an integral part of the Beth Israel Judea clergy.
In a 2009 interview with J., Morgenstern said, “The privilege of being a cantorial soloist is being able to experience the full range. It’s about your own davening, your own connection to God, your willingness to create an acoustic spiritual space with everyone.”
Born in Los Angeles, Morgenstern grew up in Moraga in a vibrant Jewish household, his parents among the founding members of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. He attended Camp Swig, and later spent a year learning Hebrew at Kibbutz Manara in Israel’s Galilee.
From a young age, he showed a talent for music, starring in high school musical theater productions. So after his year in Israel, he returned to study voice at San Francisco State University, where he met Inara Upmanis, a staff accompanist at SFSU, from where she had graduated with a master’s in music. They married in 1976, settled in San Francisco and had one daughter, Ariela, now a singer and actress in New York.
“Our house was always filled with music and laughter and love,” Ariela said this week. “I always knew my parents were in love all the time. It was like Shangri-La.”
After college, Morgenstern worked at the J. Paul Leonard Library at SFSU. His fascination with the one Apple Macintosh computer there led to his career as a tech journalist. He wrote for MacWEEK and Popular Photography, and served as editor of Ziff Davis Media’s award-winning MacWEEK, as well as its successor title, eMediaWEEKLY. He was also the driving force behind the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group, known as BMUG, which at its peak in 1993 had 13,000 members.
He never lost his passion for music, though, finding an outlet by singing in the synagogue choir. Then, after filling in as cantor for Shabbat services one week, he set himself on track for a new career as a cantorial soloist. Over the years he prepared countless bar and bat mitzvah kids, and was a leader in the synagogue’s Torah study class.
“He had a thirst for Jewish knowledge,” Greenberg said. “Although a Reform Jew, he was very observant, and felt strongly about the traditions of Judaism and maintaining them through the generations.”
When Gottlieb arrived from Toronto four years ago, he relied on Morgenstern to help him learn the ropes.
“He helped me to get to know congregants and to make it possible for me to quickly become a part of the community,” Gottlieb said. “In the beginning he would go with me on appointments to visit congregants or go to Sinai Memorial, because I didn’t know how to get around town.”
Beyond being mentor, however, was his high baritone ringing through the sanctuary. “He was a totally stunning singer,” said his daughter. “This beautiful, operatic voice like an old school 19th-century hazzan, gorgeous and soaring.”
Morgenstern’s sudden death left temple staff and congregants devastated.
“When you work with someone as closely as I did over four years, you become not just co-workers, but true colleagues, true friends,” Gottlieb said. “I will miss him terribly.”
Added Greenberg: “There wasn’t a person who didn’t like him. There wasn’t a person he didn’t like.”
David Morgenstern is survived by his wife, Inara, of San Francisco; daughter Ariela Morgenstern of New York City; brother Jamie Morgenstern of Berkeley; and sister Ann Morgenstern of Pleasanton. Donations may be made in his name to Congregation Beth Israel Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F., CA 94132.