Jewish learning “All That Jazz”: Cantor Kevin Margolius’ Jewish New Orleans
When you think of New Orleans, you think jazz, Mardis Gras, improvisation. And the city’s unique spirit is exactly what Cantor Kevin Margolius `13, cantor of New Orleans’ Touro Synagogue, is infusing into shul—leading his community with a jazzy Jewish mix rooted in inspiration from his Hebrew College experience, Jewish tradition, and nusach accompanied by slide trombone, Zydeco, and joy.
“What I try to do as a cantor is honor the diversity of our community,” Cantor Kevin Margolius.
Nowhere is he leaning into the New Orleans rhythm of life more than his shul’s annual Jazz Fest Shabbat. Margolius is the organizer, producer, artistic director, music arranger, booking agent and more for the 30-year old event. “This is an incredible evening that takes place at the same time as the city-wide New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. It’s a great way to celebrate the connection between Touro Synagogue’s 195-year history and the unique rhythms of our amazing city. Together we are truly New Orleans,” said Margolius. “Shabbat is a day of joy and a time for coming together as a community. Jazz Fest Shabbat gives us the opportunity to fill our hearts and souls with spirituality and magical rhythms found only in New Orleans. It’s our own special tribute to one of the city’s greatest traditions.”
Since its founding, Jazz Fest Shabbat special guests have included Grammy winners and jazz greats such as: Ellis Marsalis, Jeremy Davenport, Kermit Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers, Irma Thomas, John Boutté, the Joe Krown Trio, Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Sunpie Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots, Lost Bayou Ramblers, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. “Not only do our congregants attend, but people from the community who have been enjoying the city’s Jazz Festival during the day join us in the evening—there’s a spirituality that’s already in the air, and people of all faiths are looking to celebrate and drink in all of this music,” said Margolius. The 600-seat sell-out event often includes standing room only.
Jazz Fest Shabbat is fitting for Touro, which describes itself as a community with “historic roots and a progressive heart filled with beautiful contradictions—a grand, historic sanctuary and an intimate chapel; an active group of knowledgeable sages and a vibrant young adult community; a love of enduring Jewish traditions and a drive for spiritual innovation and forward motion; a commitment to the inner life of our congregational family and a constant energetic force that engages with the renewal of greater New Orleans.”
“What I try to do as a cantor is honor the diversity of our community,” said Margolius. “My Hebrew College pluralistic training in our beautiful, rich and diverse tradition grounds me and is invaluable serving a synagogue like Touro. This community is anchored in its history as the oldest synagogue in the country outside of the 13 colonies and is deeply committed to the creativity and spirituality that New Orleans is known for.”
Margolius says Hebrew College gave him the tools to provide multiple on-ramps to help his congregants learn and experience meaningful Judaism, no matter their backgrounds or previous connections to Judaism. He offers different modes for prayer—something he said he learned in Hebrew College’s beit midrash—and creative ideas and approaches to prepare teens for bar/bat mitzvah, teach adult learning classes, and direct special musical events throughout the year.
“One of the new ways we are trying to connect with congregants is through a 90-minute Saturday morning minyan we introduced this fall. We combine traditional davening with modern poetry and a cappella lay-led prayers,” explains Margolius. “It’s been a wonderful success bringing together congregants with diverse backgrounds who are finding different paths to meaningful Shabbat spirituality.”
On High Holidays, when things are at their most formal, Margolius appealed to his congregation’s diversity by arranging services for string quartet and bringing members of the Louisiana Philharmonic to play. (Touro’s ties to the local Philharmonic are strong—the chair of the Philharmonic’s board volunteers for the synagogue as a bar mitzvah tutor.) “New Orleans is the size of community where all of these things can be so interconnected,” said Margolius. “I just spoke with the executive director of the orchestra about a month ago, and they are doing a Holocaust program in January. Their Friday night was open so we’re going to bring in a quartet from the orchestra to our service to tie into their program. This is a city where people join together in these creative, musical ways.”
Margolius also embraces New Orleans culture, where he says, “music spills into the streets.” That literally happens on Mardi Gras, which Margolius jokes is not a day, but a season. (He went to 30 parades last year!) “Many parades pass right outside our synagogue, so we offer the only handicapped accessible spot in the city to watch parades. We invite kids from the local children’s hospital, we have a medical team on staff, and we have a quiet, dark space inside the building so people who might be feeling sensory overload have a place to go,” he explains.
And when Simchat Torah rolls around each year, Margolius brings jazzy spirituality outside. “We host ‘Dancing in the Park with the Panorama Jazz Band.’ [pictured above] We go to a nearby park where our local house band plays a fusion of Klezmer and jazz for us to dance to.”
Touro Synagogue released a 30th anniversary album available on their website. They are currently busy planning this year’s Jazz Fest Shabbat for April 28, 2023. The service is free and open to the public.
Learn more about Hebrew College’s cantorial program and alumni at hebrewcollege.edu/cantor