Cantor Bruce Ruben, Director, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, presented the following remarks at services at HUC-JIR/New York on April 13, 2015:
Thank you to all of you who helped to plan this beautiful morning. I am grateful to Richard and Susan , to Joyce and the choir, and to the administration for organizing this day. Thank you to Shirley and Benjie for your beautiful words. This moment affords me a brief opportunity to look back over some of the highlights of the last nine years of my directorship.
Ten years ago I was ensconced in my twenty-fourth year at Temple Shaaray Tefila and teaching history at Hunter College. (I am thrilled to see Rabbi Harvey Tattelbaum is here with us today and also my dissertation advisor Dr. Robert Seltzer.) It was only the prospect of the opportunity to help reshape cantorial education for the next generation of Reform cantors that tempted me to apply. The new cantorial model: co-clergy, demanded that he/she be able to teach, counsel, preach, and serve in a full clergy capacity. With worship changes the cantor was expected to lead bands and arrange for instruments. It was not your parent’s cantorate. The curriculum needed to be revised. After meetings with leaders of the URJ, ACC, faculty, students and alumni, the SSM faculty and I embarked on a multi year process. The new curriculum has added important new classes and integrated repertoire, liturgy and modal theory into a liturgical core.
Early on I was approached by the leadership of the ACC. They realized that their program to certify soloists was not effective and asked the school to take it over. With 100s of soloists serving Reform synagogues and being falsely equated with our graduates, I felt it was crucial that the school offer a serious and effective path to professionalization. After years of planning and fund raising the CCRT program has emerged. Under the dedicated leadership of Ellen Dreskin, two cohorts are making their way through a challenging curriculum towards cantorial certification.
It was clear to me that our DFSSM didn’t have some of the special opportunities open to the Rabbinical School. I pushed to make sure our students got to participate in the Mandel program and through the generosity of Sara Star, one cantorial student a year can join the Tisch fellows in a program that is both intellectually and financially enriching.
Of course the biggest change during my years was our name change. Debbie inspired our students for the last years of her life- for far too short a time. A very generous donor agreed to endow our school with the stipulation that Debbie’s name be attached. In this way her spirit will always be associated with our work.
Another big name change came through the courage of President Ellenson. He recognized the changes in the cantorial role and the problems associated with the term “investiture” and agreed to have cantors ordained in spite of the political pressure to do otherwise.
We have strengthened the relationship with the alumni association, through the hard work of Joy Wasserman and Mandi Beckenstein. I am particularly proud of the work of the Recruitment Working Group, which has helped immensely in this crucial area. It has become a model for working groups in other schools within our institution.
In the area of recruitment, we developed the Days of Learning. Joyce, Ellen and I just returned late last night from Chicago from an exciting event that almost thirty potential students and alumni attended.
I am grateful to so many people for their help over these years. If I thank each one of you, we will have to delay the start of the 12:15 classes. I need to single out a few. Thank you to Jocelyn who has taken care of me in so many ways over the years. And thank you also to Harriet, who is that steady support that allows all to go smoothly.
I am grateful to my faculty, most of whom are adjuncts doing this work out of devotion to the cantorial art, without much financial remuneration. I am particularly grateful to Izzy Goldstein, who served in this position for 18 years, but has practiced such tsimtsum that he never once tried to assert his views upon me, but was always there to help. I must mentioned my dear friends Mark Kligman and Benjie Ellen Schiller. Truly they have been my right and left hands. Without them I can’t imagine having accomplished much. And thanks to the rest of the full-time staff who sat around the table with me, solving problems on a weekly basis: Joyce, Merri, and recently joined by Dana , Kim and Lily. And I must mention my comrade in arms, Renni Altman, with whom I work in concert to coordinate our schools. Finally, I need to thank all our students of the past nine years who have gone through this refiner’s fire that is cantorial school. They emerge changed, ready to be Klei Kodesh for the Jewish people. I am extremely proud of them.
Now, as I am stepping down as director, I look forward to returning to my original passions. I am happily serving as cantor at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. I want to acknowledge Rabbi Serge Lippe and its president here today to celebrate this occasion. I am also looking forward to teaching Jewish history at Hunter once again, as I become the interim director of the Jewish Studies Program.
Finally, I leave the DFSSM in good hands. Cantor Richard Cohen is a proven leader with wisdom and vision. I wish him much success.