In celebration of the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1922 by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Free Synagogue, the New York campus of HUC-JIR held a year of events honoring our past, giving gratitude for what our community has become today, and committing ourselves to continue the spirit of JIR as we look to the future. Our students, who represent the future religious leadership of Reform and liberal Judaism, were urged to Be Wise – to think imaginatively in relation to the needs of our contemporary Jewish community, and dare to make real their own vision for liberal Judaism of the twenty-first century.
As part of the Be Wise Entrepreneurial Grants Competition, students were challenged to design a project that would promote entrepreneurialism and bring a spirit of innovation and creativity to campus by exploring and experimenting with community-building and outreach techniques. Students were asked to showcase the values upon which Rabbi Stephen S. Wise founded the Jewish Institute of Religion that are still part of the New York campus culture today. Students submitted proposals to the Be Wise Entrepreneurial Grants Competition outlining the need or problem they intend to address, and what they hope to achieve. They had to explain how the project carries on the work of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his vision for JIR.
Rayna Green (pictured, right), fourth-year cantorial student, and Cantor Sarah Krevsky (left), who was ordained by the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music Cantorial Program in 2013, were chosen as the winners of the Be Wise Entrepreneurial Grants Competition. Green and Krevsky are creating a communal songbook of Cantor Benjie Schiller’s work. Cantor Schiller (center) serves as Professor of Cantorial Arts at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR’s New York campus.
HUC-JIR sat down with the winners to learn more about their project:
Why did you decide to create a communal songbook of Cantor Schiller’s work?
“Yitchazeik v’yashuv... ” These unfamiliar words were introduced in song at Kallah 2012 during t’fillah. The sh’lichei tzibbur taught the beautiful new melody and soon the whole community was singing and creating harmonies with ease. Some sat in awe of the beautiful composition. Others quietly whispered to their neighbor, “Do you know who wrote that? Where can I get the music?” The last notes concluded, the kahal satiated with the new music that we had sung.
Following the service, we found each other to talk about the new music that we learned Cantor Schiller wrote. “It’s such a shame,” we commiserated, “that there isn’t one great songbook of all Cantor Schiller’s music. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all access her music?”
We agreed that our classmates would benefit from a compilation of Cantor Schiller’s music. We considered compiling a songbook that students could access at school. However, with our hectic schedules and lack of resources, the dream project was set aside.
The Entrepreneurial Grants Competition gave us the opportunity and motivation to make a published songbook of Cantor Schiller’s communal music a reality. Rather than limiting our audience to our HUC-JIR classmates, people in Jewish communities all around the country could have access to Cantor Schiller’s music. Clergy, lay leaders, congregants, choirs, could be inspired and help others connect to new spiritual heights through Cantor Schiller’s moving compositions.
We presented our idea to Cantor Schiller who, to our great delight, loved the idea. During her years teaching at HUC-JIR, Cantor Schiller noticed that the congregation desired more moments to sing together as a community with the sh’liach tzibbur. HUC-JIR gave her the space and inspiration to write more communal, lifecycle music that people could join in song together. Cantor Schiller felt passionately about keeping the integrity of her writing style for these communal moments. She acknowledged that congregants can be challenged and stretched both musically and spiritually.
Cantor Schiller expressed to us a similar desire to share her compositions, but a lack of time and resources had held her back for years. After hearing her pieces included in t’fillah, concerts or classes, students often approach Cantor Schiller asking for her music. Since much of her communal music is not published, she makes photocopies of her handwritten notes. She does not always have the time she desires to devote to publishing her music because of all the ways that Cantor Schiller gives to the HUC-JIR community as well as the wider Jewish community. Often times she hesitates to give out handwritten music, music with no accompaniment, or music still under revision. But the community is thirsty for her music. Not only does the HUC-JIR community request her music, but her cantorial colleagues often email or call her requesting specific pieces of her music. She reports that in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days the demand is higher.
With the support of the Entrepreneurial Grant, we were able to bring our dream to a reality. Together with Cantor Schiller, we were able to have the monetary resources to create a communal songbook of her music.
Who is the audience for your songbook and how do you hope it will impact them?
The publication of a compilation of Cantor Schiller’s music will hopefully reach the larger North American Jewish community. Although Cantor Schiller writes beautiful music for choir as well as solo art songs, this songbook will be focused on crafting communal spiritual moments. Cantors will be able to bring Cantor Schiller’s music to their community and will hopefully become part of their synagogue music canon.
One of the many reasons that Cantor Schiller’s music is received so well is because of her innovation and creativity. There is a thoughtfulness that she puts into each note, phrase, and rhythm that paints the text in a truly unique way. Taking poetry, such as May these Trembling Flames, and creating a musical intro to lighting Shabbat candles, gives people a new way to experience this ritual. In Water to Water, Cantor Schiller focuses on the ritual of mikveh, when she offers a piece of music that speaks to the challenges that many people can identify with. People can see themselves in her music. Thanks to Cantor Schiller’s creative portrayal of this perspective, another person may find a connection to Judaism.
Publishing Cantor Schiller’s music will bring a new perspective of liturgy to the liberal community. Her music is written in a sophisticated way that is still accessible and singable for non-musicians. Generally unfamiliar texts, such as Psalm 100 and Kaddish d’Rabbanan, come alive through her melodies. Music has a way of entering our souls and staying with us throughout our lives. Through Cantor Schiller’s music, the words of our liturgy, and the texts of our people, come alive in new ways.
How has Cantor Schiller influenced your studies at HUC-JIR?
In too many ways to count. Cantor Schiller is an incredibly gifted musician and it’s been especially thrilling to see her creativity come through her compositions. Working with her, we have learned that every note a composer writes is intentional and important. Her thoughtfulness towards music has helped us to also become better musicians. Keeping the composer’s point of view in mind, we look at music and try to imagine the perspective of the composer. It brings new life to both her music as well as other music we sing.
Throughout our time at HUC-JIR, Cantor Schiller has been such a wonderful model of what a cantor can be - truly, a cantor’s cantor. She serves her congregation, teaches and shares her wisdom with her students, and takes time for her own musical passions by composing music. Cantor Schiller shows compassion to every person she meets and it comes through in her music. It’s truly wonderful to observe her “in action” and to learn from her. Studying and working with Cantor Schiller is nothing short of an incredible gift.
What have you learned about Stephen S. Wise through the Be Wise Entrepreneurial Grants Competition?
Stephen Wise was an innovator and entrepreneur of his time who helped shape the face of Reform Judaism. As we have embarked on this project together, as entrepreneurs in our own way, we have learned that passion goes a long way in making a dream a reality. Cantor Schiller’s own innovation and creativity makes her music unique and helps people connect to liturgy and rituals in a new way. Just as Wise couldn’t imagine the doors he opened for Jews when he spoke out about social justice and Zionism, so does Cantor Schiller’s music invite the Jew who is searching for a way to connect personally. As we reached out for support of this project, it became even more clear how Cantor Schiller herself and her music reaches out to all Jews across denominations. Her music is all inclusive, bringing Jews and non-Jews together in elevated ways, just as Wise did with his words and his vision.
What have you learned about entrepreneurialism through this project?
Finding people who are just as excited and passionate about the project as you is incredibly helpful! Midway through our project, our original publishing company fell through and we had to find a new company to work with. We ended up connecting with Joe Eglash from Eglash Publishing and were thrilled to find that Joe was also incredibly passionate about publishing Cantor Schiller’s music and sees incredible value in her work. Finding people like that is not always easy, but is worth it in the end.
At the beginning of the project we were given the advice to “adapt as you move forward.” We certainly found that we needed to revise our project at certain points throughout the year. Although difficult to change directions at some points, it always ended up being to our benefit. After we switched publishers to work with Joe, we suddenly found ourselves in a position to include more music that we had originally envisioned! Joe urged Cantor Schiller to look back through her music and see what other music might be applicable for this songbook of communal music. This unexpected surprise certainly gave us more work, but ultimately will make the songbook even richer.
Finally, neither of us knew anything about publishing. It was difficult in some ways to embark on a project that we had no knowledge about. Where do we start? How does one use the music program Sibelius? What is the process of getting music published? We discovered that people were incredibly willing to answer our many questions and help in any way they could. We are still learning the ins and outs of writing out music in Sibelius, but slowly getting better. At the end of the day, it was a good lesson to remember that just because you don’t know about something does not mean you shouldn’t try.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?
Working towards publishing a songbook of Cantor Benjie Schiller’s music has been a rewarding and learning experience. The extra time we got to spend with our teacher was invaluable and it's exciting to know that we will continue working together. It also gave us the opportunity as classmates and colleagues to deepen our relationship which is always incredibly valuable. We are both so thrilled to be a part of publishing the music of Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller. It is truly an honor.
A native of Anchorage, Alaska, Rayna Green grew up attending Congregation Beth Sholom and spent her summers at Union for Reform Judaism Camp Swig. While in college, she directed Camp Sholom and song-led at Hillel Campus services. Rayna went on to song-lead at Camp Newman and was the inaugural Head Song Leader at Camp Kalsman. A graduate of the University of Oregon with a B.A. in Family and Human Services, Rayna joined Temple Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon in 2003. For seven years, Rayna served as preschool teacher, senior and junior youth group advisor, Song Leader for the Sunday School and Tot Shabbat services, and a member of Beth Israel’s house band, Def Schlepper. Rayna helped found Beth Israel's 20s and 30s group, offering an alternative prayer service. As a Student Cantor, she served Port Jewish Center in Port Washington, New York for two years. Rayna is going into her fourth year at HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in New York. She is thrilled to be the Student Cantor at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue this coming school year.
Cantor Sarah Krevsky was born and raised in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. She graduated in 2008 from Brandeis University with a Bachelor's degree in Near Eastern & Judaic Studies and Music. Following college, Sarah studied for the cantorate at HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, where she was ordained in May 2013. After returning from her first year of cantorial study in Israel, Sarah was honored to served for two years as the cantorial intern once a month at Temple Beth El in South Bend, Indiana, and then in her final two years of cantorial school at Garden City Jewish Center in Long Island, New York. Additionally, she has taught first grade at East End Temple in New York City and has tutoring many young adults in preparation for their b'nai mitzvah. For two summers, Sarah worked as a chaplaincy intern at New York Medical Center through Health Care Chaplaincy. This coming September, she will be serving full time as a chaplain resident at the VA Hospital in New York City.