United Jewish Center (UJC) Cantor Penny Kessler, who has been leading the services there for 28 years, is retiring but neither she nor her husband, retired Bethel dentist Dr. Stanley Kessler, are going anywhere.
“I love this town. We are staying…I truly loved what I did. I’m waiting for the next adventure,” she said in an interview.
The couple moved to Bethel from Danbury 38 years ago and raised a family here. Daughter Alaina is an oncologist at Mt. Sinai in Manhattan. Son Warren is an attorney, he and daughter-in-law Stephanie live in Bethesda, MD; and son Harrison Kessler is an attorney who lives in Brookline, MA.
Kessler will be honored with a UJC Gala Celebration on Sunday, May 21.
She will continue at UJC but in a different role. “I’m being gifted, honored with an emeritus contract…It’s a very lovely and gracious offer. My role in the synagogue will be based on what my successor would like me to do,” Kessler said.
So she will still see the people whom she’s gotten to know and watch the next generation of those who have enriched her life grow at the UJC. Members come from all over Connecticut, and Westchester County, NY.
“The town was very good, and very kind to my husband as a dentist. He loved having his practice here in Bethel. The town has grown a lot, and it is still the warm and welcoming Bethel we have always loved,” Kessler said. She serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission and plans to continue in that role. Among serving in other volunteer roles in the area, Kessler is looking forward to volunteering as a clergy person for rvnaHEALTH.
“It’s been an eye opener because the goal of Planning & Zoning is to continue to grow the town, bring more people in, bring businesses in, bring in affordable housing. We’re currently dealing with the State affordable housing law 8-30g. The town is doing it really well and just making sure that as the town grows, it grows with intent. The downtown area that we’ve got has all these restaurants. It's amazing,” Kessler related.
Last Hannukah Kessler got involved in a community menorah lighting event at Barnum Square. A menorah was purchased with private donations. “One of the townspeople had been organizing it and a lot of people came out. We had 50 people there,” she said.
The couple came to Connecticut from Brooklyn in 1978 and lived in Danbury where Dr. Kessler opened a dental practice and Kessler worked for the dental office as a secretary while raising their children. She briefly considered becoming a dental hygienist at the time, a small part of her career story she recounted with a shrug and smile.
“I was a music major in college. When I got out of college there were no jobs anywhere so I went to Katherine Gibbs secretarial school. This was in the Pan Am Building. I couldn’t get work. I finished (Gibbs) and got a job as a secretary on Wall Street, and got married," she recounted.
Kessler first worked for a company in Wilton and then in her husband's office. After her second and third children (twins) were born, she started thinking, “What am I going to do? I just decided I wanted to do something that had to do with music, which had become important. I wanted to do something with Judaism that had become very, very important to me. And I decided I’m going to be a dental hygienist and I remember my husband’s hygienist said to me ‘Why? What? No. You don’t want to do this.’”
Still, Kessler looked into it further. At the time there were two dental hygienist schools in the area but in order to be admitted she needed to take high school chemistry. “I said I took biology and physics and was a college graduate, and they said, ‘That’s nice.’”
She checked with Western Connecticut State University and found out she could audit a class but she couldn’t register for just one class. “I had to be a matriculating student. So (she thought) there goes that idea.”
Meanwhile, the synagogue where she was a member of the choir as a volunteer had hired a student cantor (Allen Leider). Kessler was called upon to pitch in. She asked the cantor about the training.
“I remember looking at it him and going, ‘Huh? You go to school for this?’” And I applied.
So in 1990, she started her cantorial studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, commuting via Metro North to Greenwich Village and received her Master's Degree in Sacred Music and was ordained as a Cantor in 1993.
The first year was supposed to be in Israel but because Kessler had a family she couldn’t go. “They graciously exempted me that first year,” she said.
During that year she studied reading and speaking Hebrew, studied Jewish music history, and learned the many systems of cantillation to chant from the Hebrew Bible.
“You might have heard I am a Hebrew school dropout,” she laughed, referring to an article written about her that mentions that.
Actually, as is commonly the case, she attended religious school up to her Bat Mitzvah and learned to moderately read Hebrew, but hadn’t continued her Hebrew studies since.
She served as a student cantor and then was ordained cantor at the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem, NY. An opening came in the summer of 1995 at UJC.
As a cantor at UJC, Kessler led spiritual worship for Shabbat, Friday evenings, and Saturday mornings, along with the festivals of Passover, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.
“Our specialty as cantors is to lead the congregation, and also to teach and lead our worship services through music,” Kessler explained.
In 2020 Kessler was chosen to become the UJC's spiritual leader, and with the huge support of the UJC's leadership, guided the congregation safely through and out of the COVID shelter-in-place.
She also taught UJC religious school to children from preschool age through seventh grade.
“It was one of the best parts because I loved getting down on the floor and singing, and you know, hanging out with the kids. It was really wonderful, just a terrific thing,” Kessler said.
As Kessler winds down her cantor career she feels fulfilled in having been part of the lives of so many families through the years at UJC.
The UJC Gala Celebration on Sunday, May 21 is from 5 to 9 p.m. and includes dinner, entertainment, a silent auction, and tributes to Kessler. The price is $118 per person. For more information call UJC at 203-748-3355 or visit check out this invitation.