Student Spotlight: Isaac Sonnett-Assor

Student Spotlight:
Isaac Sonnett-Assor
Fourth-Year Cantorial Student
Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music
HUC/New York

Isaac Sonnett-AssorPlease tell me about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC.
I grew up outside of New York City in New Rochelle in a Conservative synagogue called Beth El Synagogue Center. I developed a close relationship with my childhood cantor Farid Dardashti, and he was very influential in getting me interested in the cantorial world; he taught me to lead services for the first time and continues to support me to this day. That was mixed with the Jewish foundation I had at home, in a Sephardi-Ashkenazi household. My dad is a Sephardic Jew from Morocco, my mom is Ashkenazi, and I was and still am interested in these different heritages and how they live on today. No one’s background is simple, and we’re all trying to find out more about where we come from and what that means for where we are and where we’re going. I keep these pieces with me today, having grown up outside of the Reform movement, and growing up with different heritages in my home, while I continue to learn about and work in the Reform movement. In Judaism today and Judaism in the future, there will never be neat categories. There’s so much interaction between different movements, different heritages, and different traditions. There’s a quote, “May nothing Jewish be foreign to you,” and I want to keep understanding and learning more about the pieces I grew up with and the traditions I haven’t yet experienced.

What is your favorite part of learning at the DFSSM?
One thing that’s very special is that there is a collaborative element to working with your teachers. Built into the school is the concept that the people you’re studying with will be your colleagues one day. There is this element of understanding that you’re studying with masters, people that you want to soak up everything from, and with that, there’s always this mindset that you need to think for yourself, and about how these concepts will apply not just in school but throughout your career. You need to be thinking how will I not just be a student, but how will I be a colleague with these incredible teachers? This week I worked with one of my professors, Merri Lovinger Arian, in preparing tefillah for Kallah. A few days later I got to go back to being in her class, and the relationship felt deepened because of this experience of getting to be collaborative partners for the summer. That combination of being a student now and a colleague in the future adds a lot of vitality to the education and a lot of anticipation about how these relationships will continue to develop in the future.

What are your hopes for this new school year?
Something that was really apparent in this first week was how much the campus has changed since I have studied at HUC in person. I felt like I was meeting half the school for the first time just this past week, which was really special. There’s a lot of catching up to do, a lot of wanting to get to know the new classes on campus and develop those relationships in the time I have left at HUC. I find myself thinking more about what kind of a professional I would like to be when I ultimately enter the field as an ordained cantor. So much of these past three years has been foundational, trying to develop as strong a footing in the fundamentals as possible. Now we’re really starting to be pushed to think about how we will interact with the broader cantorial community and the Jewish community at large in a couple of years. I hope this is a year of thinking deeply and critically about that, so that when the time comes I’ll feel prepared to hit the ground running.

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, are there any reflections you’d like to share? What is special about the High Holy Days this year?
I had a chance to meet with our choir for the first time yesterday. We did some remote recording together last year but it felt so different to be in the room together this year. Even though things are looking different health-wise than they were a couple of months ago, it still felt really special to be together.

The symbol of the Mishkan, of the Tabernacle, as a portable place for prayer shows us that we can pray wherever we are. It became a symbol of the past year because so much of the way that we engaged with our communities was remotely; we talked about having a little Mishkan wherever we were. I think this year feels perhaps more complicated. We’re in this new chapter where it is difficult to know what is safe and how we are able to interact with one another. How “normal” can things be and what does normal mean at this point? When thinking about these holidays, every year has a story, and I’m anxious and eager to know what the story of this year is going to be. Is there going to be an image that helps us make sense of where we are and where we’re going? I think the holidays are the right time to be thinking about that, since we get to write the story of the new year together.

Will you please tell us about any internship experience(s), such as pulpit work or a chaplaincy?
This will be my third year of interning at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY, where I get to work with an amazing clergy team, working closely with my mentors Cantor Amanda Kleinman ’15 and Cantor Danielle Rodnizki ’20. I’m really excited to enter my third year with this community. I spent this summer getting to know a new community in Colorado with the Aspen Jewish Congregation. It was exciting to learn how Judaism is experienced in New York versus out in the mountains and how it can be to work with different sized teams and communities. There’s been so much that’s been valuable from both these experiences, and I feel grateful for both of them. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about the lessons that can be brought in both directions; bringing the lessons from a large community into a small one, and vice versa.

Last summer I served as a chaplain with the Archdiocese of New York at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, which is a short term rehabilitation center and nursing home. On the whole, it was a moving, challenging, heart-opening, eye-opening experience. At a time when all people were looking for direction and a way to be helpful, I felt grateful to be able to work there, with colleagues from different faith backgrounds. It gave a lot of grounding and meaning to the summer. I’m grateful for how many different types of experiences HUC has made possible for me, and I’m eager to see what the coming year holds.