On Wednesday afternoon, July 8, our shul’s bimah became unbalanced. For the past thirty years, Cantor Seymour Rockoff faithfully served as the chazzan of Kesher Israel (KI) Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His unexpected passing has shaken each of us – especially when one looks at his empty seat on the left side of our Aron HaKodesh.
Within less than twenty-four hours, an integral component of KI had suddenly passed away, was eulogized in Harrisburg, and was laid to rest in Paramus, New Jersey.
KI’s beloved Cantor Rockoff – HaRav Eliyahu Shalom ben HaRav Chaim Shmuel – meant so much to so many. In the days since his passing I have received e-mails and phone calls from people around the world, expressing their shock and condolences. They shared stories of how Cantor Rockoff managed to touch their lives in one way or another. Several told me how Cantor Rockoff graciously shared with them some of the novel melodies he had come up – enabling them to enhance the prayers in their own synagogues. Others told me how the cantor’s melodies had inspired them or lifted their spirits at various points in their lives.
Cantor Rockoff certainly had a fascinating life story. Born into a rabbinic family in 1942, he spent his early years in Pennsylvania’s coal region. After his family moved to New York when he was a young boy, he made the long round-trip subway commute to and from Yeshiva Torah Vodaas each day. Following his graduation from high school (1959), he went on to attend Yeshiva University (then known as Yeshiva College), where he earned his bachelor’s degree (1963), and eventually attained rabbinic ordination (1968) in addition to his cantorial training.
After he began serving as a chazzan at a very young age, Cantor Rockoff served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, stationed in Munich for three years. He then went on to serve with distinction as both a chazzan and pulpit rabbi in several Jewish communities. During that time he also earned a name for himself as gifted musician, composer of Jewish songs (several of which went on to become well-known throughout the Jewish world), a sought-after entertainer, and a world-class chazzan who was highly respected by his friends and colleagues.
Cantor Rockoff was an extremely clever and witty person who will be remembered for the sparkle in his eyes and the smile (sometimes a mischievous one) on his lips. Of course, he was also a true family man – a beloved son, husband, brother, father, and grandfather.
Allow me to focus on some of what Cantor Rockoff meant to Kesher Israel Congregation. With his melodious voice and his meticulous pronunciation, he faithfully led our shul in prayer for the last thirty years. With his devoted wife, Dena, always at his side, he devoted himself to enhancing our congregation’s prayer experience.
Cantor Rockoff proudly filled the role of our congregation’s prayer representative/emissary. In that capacity, he was our agent in bringing our voices, prayers, hopes, anxieties, joys, and sometimes our tears before God’s heavenly throne. For all those years he asked God to bless our congregational family with health, happiness, prosperity, and nachas from our families.
Our shul owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Cantor Rockoff for making our services inspiring, dignified, and a pleasure to be a part of. Our entire congregational family feels an overwhelming sense of hakaras hatov to Cantor Rockoff for all he did for us in his capacity as our shaliach tzibbur. We view the three decades we were blessed to have him as our devoted chazzan as an incredible gift. How can we even begin to say “Thank You” for all that he shared with us?