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School of Sacred Music
Playing piano, Boston sports teams, and politics
Blog #5: March Blog
The world of online dating is familiar to more than a few HUC students, but I never thought I’d be going speed dating at school. That, however, is exactly what it felt like last Sunday during our day of student placement interviews and auditions. Let me backtrack...
Every cantorial student participates in the student placement program which connects each one of us with a congregation where we can get some additional experience leading services, teaching in religious school, working alongside other clergy, and getting some first-hand exposure to congregational dynamics. Different students are serving congregations in the northeast, midwest and the south, and are visiting these congregations once a month, a few times a month, or sometimes, several hours a week. It’s a huge part of our program, so the process of being placed in these jobs can be somewhat stressful.
When my class was in Israel last year, the placement process was somewhat unique. We made audio recordings of ourselves singing synagogue repertoire and conducted Skype interviews with congregational representatives and search committees. Now that we were part of the New York campus, I think we were all looking forward to the on-site, in-person interviews and auditions.
As the day of placement began, the rabbis, cantors and lay leaders from numerous reform synagogues arrived at school to see an audition concert of sorts. In the HUC chapel, each cantorial student sang two selections, ranging from standard High Holy Day repertoire to contemporary Shabbat melodies and even children’s songs (after all, we’re interviewing to teach in religious school, too). Like any audition, I was a little nervous at first, but those nerves were quickly set at ease when everyone in the audience began mouthing the words, if not actually singing along. To be honest, you probably couldn’t have asked for a friendlier audience! But the audition was actually the easy part – next came the speed dating. For the rest of the afternoon, the representatives from each congregation would hold court in their assigned rooms, and each cantorial student moved from room to room, interview to interview.
Needless to say, it was a long day. But in the end, everything seemed to work out really well. Everyone from my class who went into placement got their first choices! For me, that means Temple Emanu-El in New York, and for my classmates, it means student pulpits in New York and in the Virgin Islands! Not too bad…
As my second year at HUC starts coming to its close (hard to believe), I’m realizing how important the student pulpit experience is when it comes to learning what being a cantor will actually be like. I’m so excited to be the cantorial intern at Temple Emanu-El next year, and can only imagine how dramatic of a contrast it will be to my experiences this past year working in Plano, TX. It can sometimes be easy to feel like you’re stuck in the HUC bubble, but by working at dramatically different congregations in different parts of the country, we get to experience a broad spectrum of real-world synagogue life. It’s a huge part of our training here, and an invaluable experience – even if we have to do a little speed dating to get there.
Posted by at 4:54 pm
Blog #4: January Blog
When you’re an HUC student, you’re pretty much busy all the time. So when a break comes along, it can sometimes be a great thing. As this winter break began, I went on a family vacation to Miami, and had planned on then coming back to New York to enjoy some time with friends, concerts around the city and most of all, going to bed at night without setting an alarm for the next morning.
But in the middle of this break, something happened. I got an IM from a classmate, who was wondering if I had heard anything about Debbie Friedman. At that point, I hadn’t yet heard that she had been hospitalized, and was in critical condition, being treated for pneumonia. But news about her condition spread quickly throughout the HUC community and a few days later, I heard about her passing away. Like so many, I was completely shocked.
The healing service that I was planning on attending that evening at the JCC in Manhattan with a handful of other HUC students was very quickly transformed into a memorial service. But there were no eulogies, tributes, or emotional stories shared. That evening was devoted only to her music and her poetry, which seemed to carry entirely new weight and meaning. Mi Shebeirach, which I once considered a soothing song, suddenly became a sad one (a feeling that’s seemed to linger, as I’ve sung that prayer in services in recent weeks).
Posted by at 5:28 pm
In full disclosure, I never knew her personally. I wasn’t yet at the point where I could have taken her Music as Midrash class at HUC. I hadn’t spent time with her at OSRUI or Havah Nashira, but I was still overwhelmed. It would be inappropriate to act as if I had lost a close friend, but at the same time, there was a significant portion of the American Jewish community that was mourning as if they had. Maybe that’s a sign of how broad and deep her impact was; the fact that you could lack a personal relationship with her, and still feel such a profound sense of loss. In the last few weeks, there have been many tributes posted online of how giving and selfless she was as a mentor, teacher and friend, but there seem to be just as many from individuals who never met her. You can stumble across just as many tributes from those recalling their experiences learning the Aleph Bet with Debbie, singing her definitive Havdallah at camp, hearing her Psalm 23 at the funeral of a parent, or feeling like she gave them permission to really sing in synagogue again.
It’s hard to really describe the enormity of her impact on our community. More than a songwriter, she defined a movement that reshaped the world of Jewish music, paving the way for so many others that would follow her. I’ve heard more than a few people refer to Jeff Klepper and Dan Friedlander’s signature Shalom Rav as “the Debbie Friedman Shalom Rav.” I’ve even heard some refer to her melodies of Oseh Shalom or Mi Chamocha as the “traditional” ones. It practically seems a given that her music and legacy of congregational singing will keep her spirit alive for generations. But I’m struck by something else. Debbie Friedman’s yahrzeit is Shabbat Shirah. On her yahrzeit every year, amazing as it is, we will read from the Torah about the women dancing with their timbrels, following Miriam as she sings her song. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling, poetic and lasting tribute.
Blog #3: December Blog
I’ve gotten to know the American Airlines terminal at LaGuardia pretty well. That’s because one weekend a month, I travel to Texas to serve as a student cantor for a congregation just outside of Dallas. Probably one of the more unique opportunities in the cantorial program, working as a student cantor gives us the chance to put into practice all the skills that we’re learning in and outside of the classroom.
My first visit to the congregation took place just as the semester was beginning, at the end of August. I wanted to have the chance to experience what a typical visit might feel like before the High Holy Days were suddenly upon us. “You’re much taller than you are on Skype,” said one of the members of the cantorial search committee, when I first arrived at the synagogue. Her sentiment was well noted. After the long-distance interview and audition process that my class went through last spring, as we finished our year on the Jerusalem campus, it was comforting to finally arrive at the synagogues we’d all heard so much about. The people in this community were so nice and I think they were just as excited to have a student cantor as I was to be there! I met a wonderful couple named Bob and Barbara, who I would be staying with for most of my visits. But Bob and Barbara do not live alone. They have two amazing little dogs named Tasha and Fuzz (although I’m not sure how they got their names, as both dogs seem equally fuzzy), who bark and jump on top of me every time I walk through the door. It’s quite a welcome!
During the High Holy Days, I decided to stay in Texas for the duration of the time, rather than travel back to New York in between, and I’m so glad that I did. It was great to be able to spend the time in the area getting to know the community and the people. But aside from that, it almost felt like I was getting a small glimpse of what the future might hold – driving to the synagogue in the morning for meetings with the Rabbi, practicing with Torah readers, rehearsing with the piano accompanist, and driving “home” at the end of the day. This might have been the most unexpected part of the student pulpit experience – really feeling like I’m part of this community during my time there.
Speaking of being part of the community, I’ve also had the chance to get a taste of life in the Lone Star State. It would be a shame to have a student pulpit in Texas and not have a chance to see the Dallas Mavericks or the AL Champion Texas Rangers play a game. They also have the most incredible Mexican food! I’d say it’s definitely a few steps up from Chipotle. It seems that I missed this year’s State Fair, where past favorites have included deep fried oreos and deep fried butter (yes, unfortunately I’m serious), but the Rodeo in Ft. Worth is next on my list!
You can go all the way to Texas, but you can’t get away from Grimaldi’s Pizza, Brooklyn’s finest!
All that aside, working at a student pulpit has been an incredible experience - leading Shabbat evening, Shabbat morning and Tot Shabbat services with the rabbi, tutoring B’nai Mitzvah students, working with the adult choir, and teaching pre-kindergarten through sixth grade classes in the religious school. I’m learning so much with each visit and am looking forward to the next time I’ll pull up to the American Airlines terminal.
Posted by at 3:33 pm
Blog #2: November Blog
One of the annual milestones for each cantorial student is the presentation of a practicum. As I’ve been preparing for my upcoming practicum, many of my non-HUC friends have asked me what a practicum even is. I’ve explained to them that it’s kind of like a service and kind of like a recital, but it’s not really either. To most, that explanation didn’t seem to clear up a whole lot. To be more specific, students are assigned a portion of the liturgy (such as Shabbat Ma’ariv or Kol Nidre), or a certain type of service (such as Yom Hashoah or a Healing Service) and present a musical liturgical program in the context of that service. So in a sense it feels like a service, with the leader often wearing a tallit or even a white gown, but it also feels a bit like a performance or a recital with programs being handed out as you walk in the room. Regardless of how a practicum is defined, it’s clearly one of the major components of the School of Sacred Music program.
Cantorial students working on music, and not at all posing for this picture.
With my practicum on traditional Kabbalat Shabbat this coming week, I’ve moved passed the impulse to second-guess and change all my repertoire choices at the last minute, and have come to appreciate everything that goes into the preparation process. In music school, I was used to simply selecting repertoire and preparing the music, but this process has been entirely different. It began with an extension of the in-depth study of the Shabbat liturgy from our coursework. Working with my coach, I began to select examples of chazzanut that were not just interesting and challenging, but also helped to illustrate the mood that I wanted to create in the service. I’ve learned how selecting music for a service is much more than finding music that you like – it can really be about presenting your theological view and interpretation of the liturgy in musical terms.
Posted by at 4:42 pm
HUC Students have a hot chocolate break
Last week, classes were called off for two days and all of the rabbinic and cantorial students in our class met for a two-day seminar, or y’mei iyyun dedicated to lifecycle events. Over these two days, we met and discussed the challenges, difficulties, logistics, and unique skills necessary for officiating at funerals and weddings, filling in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of both lifecycle events. Each of us presented on a pre-assigned topic (from shloshim and chevrah kadishah to erusin and breaking the glass) and appeared before the group as unofficial experts on their topic. The program, led and facilitated by Rabbi Jonathan Stein and Rabbi Charles Kroloff, helped illustrate what might be among the most challenging and rewarding parts of being a rabbi or a cantor. One of the best parts of this program was that it prompted a lot of discussion and reflection among the students on topics that we don’t ordinarily address: Would we feel comfortable officiating at a mixed marriage wedding ceremony? Or at a Jewish funeral for a non-Jewish member of our congregation? How can we best address doubts that a couple might have about God in the course of premarital counseling? To have this venue, for rabbinic and cantorial students to come together, to learn with local rabbis and discuss many of these issues highlighted the distinct benefit of having cantorial, rabbinical, and education programs on the same campus. It can sometimes feel like each program exists in it’s own world, so it’s really nice when we can all come together and participate in a program like this.
Stay tuned for next month’s blog: adventures at my student pulpit in Texas!
Blog #1: First Blog
After a year of our class' blogs from Israel, I'll admit that it feels a little strange to be blogging again here in the States. I doubt any of the HUC bloggers will have homemade videos of trips to Egypt with a Yoshi Zweiback soundtrack, top five lists, or even clever blog titles (a special shout out to "Not Frum Here" from this year's YII class). That being said, I'm very excited to be taking part in BlogHUC this year.
I'm now in my second year in the Cantorial program and up until a few years ago, being a cantor wasn’t exactly something that I considered among my likely career paths. I grew up outside of Boston with a rabbi and a Jewish educator as parents, and while I was young, I never really imagined myself going into the "family business.” I dismissed pleadings from certain members of my extended family to think about the cantorate, wanting to find my own path. Judaism was always a big part of my life, but I entered college with the idea of pursuing a career in classical music. And throughout music school, I was convinced that I'd find complete satisfaction and fulfillment in the world of opera. But once out of school, I found the reality of that world to be colder than what I had idealized while in school, and began to think about other options. On a whim, I took a job as a cantorial soloist, and something amazing happened - I started to love it. I began asking myself the question that I was more accustomed to hearing in my grandmother's voice - Why don't I become a cantor? After a lot of time, questioning, interviewing, nusach learning and essay writing, I'm here in the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College!
Coming back from the Year in Israel and settling into stateside campus life has been a bit of a whirlwind. Between coursework, pulpit jobs, and teaching responsibilities, the major adjustment back to life in the States is often overlooked. I’d lived in New York for five years before heading off to Israel, but I found returning to Manhattan to be an interesting reflection of the ways I’ve changed in the past year.During the first few weeks of school, for instance, I was getting ready to go to Shabbat dinner at a classmate's apartment in Brooklyn. After going through my typical pre-Shabbat routine, I left my apartment, turned onto Columbus Avenue and was hit by a dramatic culture shock. I'm not sure there's a greater contrast to the way everything stops in Jerusalem on Shabbat than the way nothing ever stops in New York. If anything, activity picks up even more, as the young professional population is getting ready to start their weekend. I had become so accustomed to the erev Shabbat silence in the Jerusalem streets, with closed storefronts and stillness through the city that the New York City bustle was especially jarring. It reminded me just how much we have to create a Shabbat feeling for ourselves here in the States. Jewish life will no longer be everywhere we turn (although it may sometimes seem that way on the upper west side), and we will have to take an active role in helping to create it.
The class of 2014 has an in-school celebration of the wedding of classmate, Josh Beraha
One of my favorite things about being at HUC is having the opportunity to learn from my classmates, and now that we’re in New York, there are even more of those opportunities. Already this year, we’ve seen and heard a practicum, student sermons, a senior recital, and t’filah led by students of every level in the college. It’s been both exciting and humbling to be part of a community with such knowledge and talent.
SSM students, faculty and alumni perform in Josh Breitzer’s Senior Recital
Specifically, last week I was able to participate in the choir for this year’s first Senior Recital, given by Josh Breitzer, on the music of Jack Gottlieb in contemporary synagogue worship. These final projects are seen as the culmination of five years of hard work, practice and study, and are frequently significant milestones. This recital, however, went even further; falling on a significant birthday for Mr. Gottlieb, it also served as a tribute and celebration of his life and contributions to Jewish music. It was absolutely inspiring to be part of a program that was so diligently prepared and assembled with incredible music, but more powerful, was being part of such an amazing gift to a remarkable composer.
Needless to say, it’s been a very exciting start to the year! If my HUC schedule is any indication, the rest of the year is going to be very busy with more exciting programs and opportunities, and I’m so glad to be able to share them with you. A somewhat belated Shanah Tovah for a happy and healthy 5771!
Posted by at 11:11 am