Cantor Doron Shapira tapped on a set of miniature bongos in his office. He used to play the instrument, a gift from his father when he was 4, with a whole hand. Now he drummed with his fingers.
“My dad was the kind of person who was always tapping,” he said during an interview with J. “I would mimic him.”
The gift would augur a lifelong musical career for Shapira — from a young performer in his family’s Jewish music trio to a percussionist and singer in the wedding band Milk and Honey to cantor.
It’s in the latter role that he has become the longest serving current clergy member at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, and on Sunday, June 2, he’ll be honored for 25 years with an “instrumental celebration” at nearby Cañada College. The 4 p.m. concert will feature performances, tributes and surprise guests. An appreciation dinner will follow at 7 p.m, at the congregation.
Shapira, 55, was born to Israeli parents and moved to the United States when he was 1. Five decades later, he presents much younger than his age, as a laid-back musician might. For this interview, he wore a loose-fitting, button-down shirt with the top few buttons undone, and he had a wide, patterned kippah on his head. But he’s not one of those “guitar toting” cantors, he insisted. He’s a lifelong drummer.
He said he’s kept young in part because of the rhythm of his life — for example, not having kids until his late 40s. And because of his other responsibility: directing Peninsula Sinai’s Hebrew school.
“Youth keep you young,” he said, adding, “Youth keep your life meaningful in a major way.”
His sunny office is lined with signed portraits of musicians, Jewish texts, CDs and various hand drums, from a djembe (a goblet-shaped African drum) to a cajón box drum (the kind you sit on). He reflected on his long tenure at Peninsula Sinai, which now has a membership of about 375 families. He’s seen at least four rabbis come and go, serving at the 50-year-old Conservative congregation for a shade under half its life.
He did not join the shul because of work. “I was just looking for a place to be a member,” he said. At 28, he was living in Belmont, and doing sporadic work at Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City and Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.
“I had friends there [at Beth Jacob], and I knew Rabbi [Marvin] Goodman quite well,” he said. “But I said, ‘I’ll come here’ … not knowing I’d be here 25 years later.”
Drawn to Sinai’s Shabbat morning services, he moved to Foster City so that he could walk to shul.
The role of cantor captures only part of Shapira’s responsibilities over his lengthy tenure. For years he was the educational director of Sinai’s religious school, and he also took over as “ritual director” when needed.
“When we were in between rabbis or when one was on sabbatical, I played the rabbi,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m not a rabbi, but I can play one on TV.”
Shapira said he’s grateful to have formed a close partnership with Rabbi Corey Helfand since the rabbi was hired in 2011. He called him a “total mensch and leader.”
Shapira has treasured his interactions with youth, particularly after his father’s death in 2000.
“I came back after shiva and it was like, ugh,” he said. “But then you’re back [with the students]. They bring you out. It’s the magic — the positive spirit of the world.”
Irene Moff, the synagogue’s president, said Shapira “brings a calm inspiration” to his work, and that he has been a lodestar for the Sinai community over the years.
“People look to him during times of change or transition,” she pointed out. “If Doron is on board, it’s a confirmation that we’re doing the right thing.”
Of the upcoming celebration in his honor, she said, “We’re doing this as much for ourselves as we are for him. It’s so important to us to honor him.”