For the past nine years, the Berwyn shul was headed by Rabbi Jacob Rosner, who has an Orthodox background and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Since July, Rabbi Kami Knapp has served the congregation after Rosner moved to Newburgh, New York, to serve Congregation Agudas Israel. Knapp, 36, brings a different flavor to the shul, having been ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi and hailing from the West Coast. She’s also the first female rabbi to serve Or Shalom.
“Everyone has been very welcoming,” Knapp said. “It was a big change for this community, hiring a woman rabbi, and a woman who’s ordained Reconstructionist. Honestly, the community has handled it with grace and is welcoming and inclusive and wants me to succeed. So it’s been a wonderful experience, and I’m really excited about our future and where we hope to go.”
Knapp said she didn’t originally intend to become a rabbi, and her journey to the pulpit was a long process of self-discovery.
She was born and raised in Seattle and earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Seattle University with a goal of working as a diplomat or ambassador. She later earned a master’s degree in international studies and diplomacy from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies.
Before graduating, she planned to get a job in London at either the United Nations or the U.S. Department of State, but the Great Recession hit and she was forced to head back home.
To support herself, she took a job at a mental health hospital in Kirkland, Washington. Eventually, she hit a crossroads and, with the guidance of a life coach, discovered her passion for Jewish community service.
She enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and spent time studying at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was there, she said, a passion for the Zohar and Kabbalah was sparked.
Knapp was ordained in 2017 and worked as program director of the Diller Teen Fellowship. Although she was ordained Reconstructionist, she described herself as more traditional and Conservative in her theology and practice. So when an opportunity arose at Or Shalom, she took it, believing the congregation to be a good fit.
“What jumped out at me the most was its focus on the community,” Knapp said. “People here very much take pride in contributing their time, their expertise, their passion to the synagogue. And that can be hard to find.”
Or Shalom dates to the early ’70s, when it was founded in Wayne as “The Conservative Synagogue of the Main Line.” It’s been in Berwyn since 1985, and was one of the first Conservative synagogues to provide full equality to female members.
Scott Markovitz, the synagogue’s membership chair, said Knapp has a more modern approach to the rabbinate, with an interactive and engaging style that is attractive to younger members. It’s a new perspective.
“She’s really a change for us. We previously had a very traditional rabbi. Rabbi Kami brings a fresh view of things,” Markovitz said. “It took a little more open-mindedness to even think outside of a traditionally trained Conservative rabbi, but she’s working hard to maintain our image and traditions as a Conservative shul.”
Congregation President Andrew Levin said Knapp’s more nonreligious business experience made her an attractive candidate during the hiring process. He described Knapp as a person with excellent communication skills, a logical speaker, organized and easy to work with.
“The one thing that I appreciate about her is that she’s not coming into the shul to change what we’ve done in the first six months. It shows the depth of her interpersonal skills,” Levin said. “The direction we go in a year, two years, three years will be very interesting. But she’s really made a commitment to keep Conservative traditions and keep the things we’ve been doing while making incremental changes.”
Knapp said she intends to spend her first few years at Or Shalom learning about its traditions, customs and culture. It’s only after building trust between herself and the congregants that she plans to implement new ideas.
“I have my own personal goals, but ultimately, I want it to be a collective effort,” Knapp said. “I want us to be together for what we want our goals to be, and work together to make that happen.”
I grew up in Wynnewood, but it might as well have been Minsk. Every day, after my father left for work in the city, Mom shrugged off her English, as if it were an itchy sweater, and slipped back into Yiddish. Not to speak with me, but to engage in marathon phone conversations with her mother, sisters and friends.
Ironically, my mother was not an immigrant. She was born in Philadelphia but grew up in a Jewish section of the city where English was more of an option than a necessity. As a result, at the age of 5, Mom’s grasp of English was so tenuous she had to repeat kindergarten.
Although I was purposefully excluded from my linguistic heritage, Yiddish, with its plaintive cadence and shrieks of laughter, was the soundtrack of my childhood. I played Shoots and Ladders and braided doll’s hair to a constant refrain of gevalts and oy veys. When I was sad, Mom told me not to “torture” my neshuma (soul), which I envisioned as a furry little animal. When I was happy, she proclaimed me to be “shane vie da velt,” as beautiful as the world.
As any parent knows, kids have an instinctive curiosity about anything that is forbidden. The cake saved for company, the porcelain figurine that is not a “toy,” the schoolmate labeled a troublemaker. So, naturally, the more I was shut out of my mother’s native tongue, the more closely I listened. The first Yiddish phrase I managed to decipher, around the age of 8, was the one overheard most often. Schvaig der kinders du. “Quiet, the kid is here.”
This phrase was repeated so frequently during weekend visits to my grandmother’s house, a cocker spaniel could’ve figured it out. Unable to follow the adults’ conversation further, I gleaned from their tone that Yiddish was the language of marital discord, unspeakable diseases, dirty jokes and curses. More than anything else, it was the language of secrets, the locked door I was always trying to pry open. By the time I graduated high school, I had a vocabulary of over a hundred Yiddish words, but no idea how to form a sentence. At the same time, I was obligated to learn a foreign language in school. If having a working knowledge of Spanish, French or German was an asset, why was Yiddish taboo?
Eventually, I came to understand that Yiddish was not passed on to my generation because of its association with poverty and the Old Country. My Yiddish-speaking grandmother was illiterate and wore shmatas; my English-speaking grandmother wore pricey dresses from Bonwit’s and ran a pharmacy. I also sensed an unspoken fear. Yiddish was the language of persecution, death camps, entire communities gone up in smoke. Cutting my generation off from the language of our ancestors was considered a moral imperative of assimilation. In America, you can pray as a Jew, eat as a Jew, celebrate as a Jew. But you must never speak as a Jew. To do so would draw unnecessary attention to our inherent difference from our neighbors. Hence, cowboy hats replaced yarmulkes.
And yet, whenever and wherever Jews congregate, whether at Ben & Irv’s Deli in Huntingdon Valley, Murray’s in Bala or on the beach in Margate, Yiddish continues to flavor conversations like a spice used only for special dishes. While my contemporaries may not be able to indulge in the lengthy diatribes of previous generations, there is a certain glee in inserting bubkas, gonif or alta cocker into conversation. In this regard, Yiddish has become a secret handshake, a way of establishing connection with strangers on airplanes or in the dressing room at Marshall’s. (I confess to using Yiddish to get a better price on slipcovers and a fresher slice of lox.)
Many Yiddish expressions, especially curses, fall into the category of untranslatable. It wasn’t until I read Talk Dirty Yiddish by Rabbi Ilene Schneider of Marlton, New Jersey, that I understood what my mother was actually saying in moments of exasperation at us kids. You should grow like an onion with your head in the dirt and your feet in the air! You should be a chandelier, hang by day and burn by night! And my personal favorite: Shit in your hat and use it for curls! Yiddish isn’t merely colorful; it is the linguistic Pantone.
And yet, attitudes toward Yiddish remain ambivalent. Late night TV hosts, albeit Christian, sprinkle it into their monologues so liberally that putz and shvontz have become the lingua franca in Des Moines. At the same time, religious Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Catskills, where Yiddish is still the primary language, are held suspect and considered an anachronism. As if to say, “Shah shah, don’t draw attention to your (our) Jewishness; it could ignite anti-Semitism.”
Considering the recent uptick in anti-Semitism and white nationalism, perhaps our bubbes got it wrong. Turning Yiddish into a dead language in a single generation did not protect us Jews from murderous hate crimes, any more than speaking perfect English protected American-born Hispanics in El Paso. As we celebrate the holiest time of the Jewish year even as we remember those lost in an anti-Semitic massacre almost a year ago, those of us of Ashkenazi heritage would do well to reflect upon the cultural richness of our tradition, including the lost Yiddish of our ancestors. The language of secrets still has something to say to us about joy, sorrow and forgiveness. If only we would listen.
Stacia Friedman is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia.
Pancreatic cancer is one of deadliest forms of cancer in the United States, with less than 10% of those diagnosed surviving past five years. Each year, more than 50,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the U.S.
These are facts Randi Jacobs, 63, knows all too well; her life has been forever changed by pancreatic cancers, which killed her mother, her grandmother and almost killed her, too.
Today, Jacobs, who grew up in Mt. Airy and now lives in Lancaster, is an advocate for increased funding for pancreatic cancer research and has worked to raise money for the cause.
In 2005, her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died 10 months later. Jacobs’ grandmother had died from the disease two decades earlier.
While there are several risk factors, including smoking and old age, the exact causes of pancreatic cancer are not fully understood. However, for a small number of people, genetics does play a role. For Ashkenazi Jews who develop pancreatic cancer, there is a greater chance that an inherited defective BRCA2 gene is to blame.
So, in 2009, Jacobs and her two sisters participated in a clinical study at Penn Medicine studying people who had lost two immediate relatives to pancreatic cancer. While both her sisters’ results came up clean, Jacobs’ results showed pre-pancreatic cancer. The next week, a surgical team removed most of her pancreas. While she has developed Type 2 diabetes as a result of the surgery, she said she’s lucky to be alive.
The symptoms of the cancer are vague, such as mid-back pain and a loss of appetite. So many don’t know they have it until it’s too late.
“All the time, I would tell my sister, ‘You saved my life,’ because she got us into this study,” Jacobs said. “Without sounding sappy, I am so grateful that I am still here.”
Jacobs made pancreatic cancer her “personal cause” and has become an advocate. About five years ago, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend National Pancreatic Cancer Advocacy Day for the first time. There, she met other survivors and people whose lives have been affected by the disease.
“And when I came home, I realized that I just didn’t feel alone. I didn’t know anyone who had pancreatic cancer, other than mom and my grandmother. And I felt like I was now part of a community and I had people to talk to,” Jacobs said. “That really was a turning point for me, because now I had a whole community to talk to and share our stories.”
Jacobs has since become involved with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, or PanCAN. Since 1999, the organization has worked to support research, clinical initiatives, patient services and advocacy.
Bruce Platt is PanCAN’s Philadelphia affiliate chair. He became involved after his mother died of pancreatic cancer in 2009.
Platt said pancreatic cancer doesn’t get the same amount of press coverage and funding of other cancers, like breast and colon. He said that’s due to fewer people getting the disease, along with a lower number of survivors to tell their stories. But with increased survival rates in recent years and celebrities like Jeopardy host Alex Trebek sharing their stories of fighting the disease, more people are becoming aware.
It’s something Platt said his mother would be glad to hear.
“The one thing my mother always complained about, and this is the reason why I got involved with PanCAN, she always complained that there was nobody, there was no voice,” Platt said. “You never hear anything, and if you did hear anything, it was a blurb and that was it. So I promised my mother that I would be her voice.”
Ben Z. Stanger, the director of Penn Medicine’s Pancreatic Cancer Research Center, said that over the next five years pancreatic cancer is expected to become the second-deadliest cancer in the U.S. after lung cancer. This is due to an aging population and improved treatments of other cancers.
“In general, we’re winning the war on cancer, but in critical battles, in pancreatic cancer, we’re not making much progress,” Stanger said. “Its incidents are creeping up. It’s not an epidemic, but there certainly are more and more every year, and we attribute that to the aging population.”
To help raise awareness and fundraise, Jacobs and Platt have supported PurpleStride Philadelphia, an annual walk put on by PanCAN. The walk this year is on Nov. 2, coinciding with Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.
Jacobs will be joined by friends and family in Ann’s Dream Team to support and honor the memories of her mother and grandmother. The team’s goal is to raise $3,000.
Jana Lange was a dedicated fan of German pop music. Kevin S. was a construction worker and decorator who loved soccer.
They have been identified as the two victims killed in the shooting by the gunman who tried to enter the Halle synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur. Lange was 40; Kevin was 20.
An unidentified 40-year-old woman and a 41-year-old man were injured in Wednesday’s attack, according to Der Spiegel.
While 51 worshippers prayed inside on the most solemn day of the Jewish year, the gunman tried unsuccessfully to shoot through the synagogue’s door. Before she was shot, Lange reprimanded the shooter for being noisy near the synagogue during Yom Kippur prayer services.
According to The Times of Israel, “Lange was unable to work due to a medical condition, and devoted most of her time to attending shows and collecting autographs. Friends and German musical artists on social media mourned Lange, recalling her warmth, humor and dedication to the German pop music scene.”
Den Opfern ein Gesicht geben: Wenn man die Berichterstattung zu #Halle vergegenwärtigt, muss man sich fragen, warum die beiden Ermordeten kaum Erwähnung finden? Sie waren Deutsche und hießen Kevin S. (20) und Jana L. (40) RiP✝️ pic.twitter.com/6qDkNOVAIi
After killing Lange, the shooter proceeded to a kebab shop, where he shot and killed Kevin S., who was described as “a dedicated worker and avid soccer fan.”
During a since-removed livestream on the platform Twitch, the shooter — identified as Stephan Balliet, 27 — said in English that “the root of all problems are the Jews” and began his attack. He had a camera mounted on his helmet during the attack.
In federal court Thursday evening, the accused gunman claimed anti-Semitic and right-wing motives for the attack.
It was the early 1990s and I was a teenager who played basketball every spare second I had. I would play in men’s pickup basketball, but because I was a little young some of the men balked at letting me play. Casey, as I called him, let me play, and many times when people on my team would freeze me out, it was Casey who got me involved.
As a senior in high school, I started working the front desk, buzzing people in to use the facility. Aside from an uncle who would always strike up a conversation, the only other person who asked me about school and discussed sports was Casey.
While I attended a Jewish school and had Jewish role models, I consider Casey to be a role model for me as well. He treated everyone with respect and did not care about your race, religion or sex. Many times during games when both older or younger people would use words that might not be deemed appropriate, Casey would be the one who told people — perhaps it was in jest but now, having my own kids, I understand the meaning — to remember the kids can hear what is being said.
I am a grown man now with children of my own and I wish they, too, had their own “Casey” — someone who is not tied to their school or synagogue but someone who can teach the meaning of being a good person and gentlemen/mensch to everyone.
Gary Strong | Princeton, New Jersey
Not Entitled to Deny Forgiveness
Rabbi Sam Yolen’s op-ed (“A Pennsylvania Town As Victim,” Sept. 26) was quite interesting as well as provocative, but I must voice a major disagreement regarding state Sen. Mike Folmer who, according to the rabbi’s own words, was an outstanding leader of the community and supporter of the highly regarded interfaith clergy group. He was arrested for possession of child pornography but even though he has yet to be tried, the rabbi stated “the crime he committed is too grave for forgiveness.”
Putting aside the presumption of innocence, this kind of moral decree should not go unchallenged. We Jews do not believe in an easy road to redemption like the Catholics wherein a simple confession usually brings absolution. Nevertheless, forgiveness is not a decision for Rabbi Yolen to either grant or deny. This is because it is primarily between he who seeks it and the one(s) who have been damaged. A third party, like Rabbi Yolen or anyone else, is merely expressing a personal opinion. In the end, a religious person must recognize that the ultimate judge of us all is the One who is presumed to be merciful.
Ronald H. Beifeld | Conshohocken
Why does a man who gave up on Judaism at an early age, is an atheist, changed his too-Jewish last name, get a major article in a Jewish paper (“Gehry Makes an Entrance (Literally),” Sept. 26)? What an inspiration for the new year.
Over the last few years, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park has experienced significant growth. I know there are lots of reasons — our move to the Old York Road corridor, an inviting space, the demographics of the community, and a growing number of people searching for a place to call “home.”
Digging deeper, I think something else is happening here. In my opinion, part of the reason for our growth is that we are providing an authentic response to many people who are uprooted spiritually. There is a certain comfort level in allowing the past — the liturgy, words, melodies, rituals and ceremonies — to inform the present and the future.
The sameness brings a level of comfort to many of us. There is a peace that comes with the continuity — knowing that the prayers we say, the words we recite, the songs we sing, are the same or very similar to what our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents uttered.
I grew up in Philadelphia. My neighborhood, “D and the Boulevard,” was home to a traditional conservative synagogue, B’rith Israel, where my family belonged. And even though it is no longer a synagogue, to this day when I drive down the Boulevard and I see the building, I pine for those days. I don’t think it’s just hollow nostalgia. I can still hear the voice of the cantor, the sound of the shofar; I can remember the faces of my friends who would stand on the front steps of the synagogue. People wishing each other “Gut Yontif.”
Many of you, I imagine, understand my feelings and have your own warm memories of the synagogue you grew up in. While Melrose can’t recapture your synagogue of yesterday, we remain committed to tradition and rituals that for centuries have provided meaning to the Jewish people. Melrose understands simply because something was “yesterday” doesn’t mean it is irrelevant. We are dedicated to maintaining as much as possible this celebrated and sacred past, while at the same time engaging the present.
While acknowledging our beautiful past and present, we also look to the future. I am so proud and honored to be the rabbi of Melrose, and especially proud when people tell me how welcoming our community is, friendly and warm. And that warmth has made new people want to return time and time again.
My friend the late Leonard Fein writes about the importance of a synagogue community: “At times of a faceless community, where people still feel connected by a culture of reciprocal responsibilities… The importance of being ready, at any moment of any day, to be the 10th person in a minyan, to be the person who makes the difference in transforming an aggregation of people into a purposeful cohort.”
Rabbi Charles Sherman is the spiritual leader of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park and the author of The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak (Scribner/Simon and Schuster).
Boxing has mesmerized J. Russell Peltz since he was a Bar Mitzvah boy in Bala Cynwyd, although circumstances never really gave his boxing career a fighting chance.
The long-famous boxing promoter recalled in a 1978 interview with the Jewish Exponent that, as an adolescent, he used to go down to an Arch Street gym for private boxing lessons. The lessons were private because, by the time he would arrive, all the other kids had already gone home.
“I had to go to Hebrew school first,” Peltz said.
It may never have been in the cards for Peltz to be a fighter himself, but it was in the cards for him to become the guy who made the cards. Over the past 50 years, no one has a bigger reputation for putting together prizefights in Philadelphia than Peltz, 72.
On Oct. 4, fans, several of Peltz’s former fighter-clients and boxing luminaries like Bernard Hopkins and Teddy Atlas, filled South Philadelphia’s 2300 Arena to celebrate “Blood, Sweat and 50 Years” of Peltz Boxing Promotions.
Radio and television commentator, longtime friend and former Temple University classmate Ray Didinger sat next to Peltz throughout the eight-bout card, and was among several who were present both that night and 50 years ago, when Peltz promoted his first main event between Bennie Briscoe and Tito Marshall at the famed Blue Horizon.
Briscoe, among the scores of boxers he’s worked with, is particularly special to Peltz, who said his highest moment in the profession came when Briscoe beat Tony Mundine in a 1974 elimination contest for the middleweight title in Paris.
Briscoe always wore a Jewish star on his trunks and his robe because, said Peltz, “… he had always been managed and promoted by Jewish people.” On that particular night, when Briscoe entered the ring, there were a number of Israeli Jews sitting nearby who became quite vociferous in their support after taking stock of his attire.
“They jumped up and waved their Israeli passports and said, ‘Hey, we’re Jewish, too, Bennie!’” Peltz recalled, laughing nostalgically. “Of course, Bennie wasn’t actually Jewish, but, you know.”
Briscoe, a heavy underdog, went on to win the fight, and the Israeli contingent exalted as though their right to be Jewish had just been affirmed.
“It was a big, big upset,” Peltz said. “And (the Israeli guys) ran into the ring … and lifted (Briscoe) off his feet and carried him around on their shoulders. You can see in the video that one of them keeps pointing to his cheek, and they eventually had Bennie lean down and kiss him.”
Brokering these kinds of fan-fighter romances hasn’t been so common in Peltz’s career. But, as well known as Peltz is as a fight promoter, he may be even more respected in the boxing world as the quintessential matchmaker — kind of like Yente in Fiddler.
Yente found the Jewish boy and Jewish girl most compatible to raise a successful family together; Peltz, for 50 years now, has brought together boxers whose styles and personalities make for the most compelling prizefights.
And sometimes he even finds matches for nice Jewish boys, as he did in 1978 when he organized and promoted Mike Rossman’s light heavyweight title defense against Aldo Traversaro at The Spectrum, where Peltz served as the director of boxing from 1972-1980.
Rossman, known alternately as The Jewish Bomber and, less commonly but more amusingly, The Kosher Butcher, was known to sport a Star of David sewn into his trunks and tattooed onto his right calf. Back in ’78, Rossman was a hot commodity, coming off his first light heavyweight title win against Victor Galindez.
Some were speculating that the 5-foot-11-inch Rossman, who never fought weighing more than 179 pounds, would move up a class to fight Muhammad Ali or Ken Norton.
Rossman would have been overmatched in either situation, and Peltz knew it. Ali was 6-foot-3-inches tall and had just fought Leon Spinks at 221 pounds; Norton was also 6-foot-3 and fought at well over 200 pounds.
Asked back then about The Jewish Bomber’s chances against those heavyweights, Peltz said, “I would hope that Rossman would not fight Ali. I can’t rationally picture Rossman as a heavy-weight. Can you see him holding his own against a Ken Norton? No.”
Like matchmaking for love and marriage, it’s all about compatibility and feel. Money’s important, sure, but Peltz believes fair fights are the most exciting fights, and his goal has always been to deliver the most exciting fight possible to the paying audience.
Peltz might be rare among boxing promoters in his reputation for honesty; but this is not to suggest he’s gone soft.
Is boxing too violent? No — at least not compared to football, Peltz said.
“People who tell me boxing’s brutal, and then they tell me they go to the Eagles games and love football … they just don’t know enough, they don’t think,” said Peltz, who insists that boxing has provided better safety oversight than football.
“If you put a gun to my head and told me that my son had to choose between football and boxing, there’s no question that I would choose boxing,” Peltz said. “No question.”
Incidentally, Peltz’s younger son did end up boxing for a time, finishing as the runner-up in Indiana University’s Golden Gloves competition. He did so without his mother knowing — this, in the tradition of all the great Jewish fighters before him, according to Peltz.
“All the great Jewish fighters from the ‘20s, that’s why they changed their names … because they were afraid of their mothers,” said Peltz chuckling in a slightly incredulous manner. “Boxing was a shonda.”
The only thing Peltz thinks a shonda today is how unorganized boxing’s become.
“The neighborhood rivalries — North Philly against South Philly, the Bronx against Staten Island — they don’t exist anymore,” Peltz said. “Because everyone wants to be one of eight gazillion ‘world champions.’”
By Peltz’s own admission, boxing will never be what it once was, due largely to its own self-inflicted wounds. Still, he’s grateful — and a little surprised — to still be standing in the ring after so many rounds.
“I told my first wife before we got married that I had $5,000 in the bank, that it would take me six months to blow it, and I’d have this great scrapbook to show my kids about the time their daddy was a boxing promoter.”
NEWTON CENTRE, MASSACHUSETTS — On a bright Monday morning, about 10 miles west of Boston, a group — mostly rabbis and cantors in training — sat in a circle at Hebrew College for morning tefillah.
They resembled the mix you’d expect at a pluralistic Jewish studies college. The prayer service was egalitarian, with all students sitting together, and they wore a range of religious garb.
Every morning at the college, the students try out different styles of prayer. Some mornings, that prayer is traditional, davening typical to some Conservative or Modern Orthodox shuls. Other mornings, that service might be Chasidic-inflected or be a prayer through movement session.
These tefillot may function as an exercise, preparing these clergy-in-training in general, and cantors specifically, for the changing world facing institutions like synagogues. These institutions find themselves competing against other spaces — like different groups organized around hobbies, interests or politics — as places for community building. To stay relevant, synagogues have to find deeper ways to tap into spirituality.
The clergy-in-training at Hebrew College can start each day by exploring these different paths to spirituality themselves.
On this particular morning, the second Monday of the school year, the students used tefillah to explore Lashon HaKodesh — literally the Holy Tongue, or Hebrew. Participants switched off between English and Hebrew throughout, based on what certain passages in the Gemara said have to be done in Hebrew and what could be done in a vernacular language.
“Davening every day is different,” said Matt Goldberg, a second-year student in the Rav-Hazzan program at Hebrew College. “Not just, oh maybe this one little melody, or maybe the leader has a different voice, but totally different. And what better way to figure out what I connect to than being exposed to many things? It was scary, and it’s scary every day, and it’s challenging and amazing.
“Sometimes, we’ll do a service in English or that uses all the feminine God language or is movement with our bodies or is outside, in the stairwell or whatever, something I’ve never done before. It’s amazing. It means something to me. It gets my spirit going, I guess. I get to figure out why, what is it about that prayer experience that is so meaningful.”
Goldberg is the only student in the Rav-Hazzan program, a relatively new option at Hebrew College that will allow him to graduate in just six years with ordinations as both a rabbi and a cantor.
He grew up in Vancouver, Canada, where he attended a Conservative synagogue and was involved in a Conservative youth group. Despite that, he attended a pluralistic rabbinical college because he wanted to explore a wider range of ways to practice Judaism.
He came to Hebrew College expecting to solely pursue the rabbinate, but he has always been a musical person, having played the piano and trumpet and played in bands. He would sometimes hear, when he started on the path to becoming a rabbi, that his musical background would add to his rabbinical service. In other words, he could serve the community as a “singing rabbi.”
But he wanted more than to just be a rabbi who could sing. So he embarked on the Rav-Hazzan program, one of the first students to do so. He concurrently takes both rabbinical and cantorial classes.
“Calling a cantor a person who can sing is true, but it ignores a lot more of a cantor’s education and training and experience and skills,” Goldberg said. “There’s singing, but there’s so much more learning of history and of music theory and of our traditions. There’s so much more to it. I wanted that.”
The Cantor in the Synagogue
Connecting to spirituality through music and prayer — that’s the role of the cantor in the synagogue, to guide congregants through that connection.
In Hebrew College’s Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual and Educational Leadership, students take classes on the history of Jewish music, B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, choral conducting, how holy texts can be grammatically broken down to determine their trope and more. They learn a range of Jewish prayers and songs, traditional and contemporary music. The program takes three years, with two eight-week intensive summers. (The rabbinical school is five years, with an optional year called Mekorot for students who need an additional year of preparation.)
Out in Jewish communities, cantors can often take on a variety of roles, said Cantor Elana Rozenfeld, interim director of the cantorial program at Hebrew College. In the past, they may have doubled as mohels or shochets. Today, it’s common for cantors to run religious schools.
At some synagogues, the cantor may even lead the congregation as the only clergy person.
But at the same time, while all synagogues have prayer leaders, not all synagogues employ cantors. A congregation may rely on a rabbi, volunteers from the community or a cantorial soloist — a musician without the cantorial ordination, who may be a synagogue employee.
Anyone with a good voice and knowledge of prayer can lead a service, Rozenfeld said, but an ordained cantor brings a special depth of knowledge. They can find the right style, tune or prayer that specifically connects a certain individual or community. They can lead children or adult choirs. Every congregation wants something different, and part of being a professional means having a wider breadth of knowledge to draw from.
“I was the connection between the community and Jewish culture in general,” Rozenfeld said, reflecting on her work in synagogues. “The connection between the community and Jewish texts was the rabbi. I focused on prayer, prayer text, and music.”
One way her professional knowledge has allowed her to provide a unique service is in hospitals, with elderly people.
In the last congregation she worked at, Rozenfeld was able to put her cantorial knowledge to good use — by comforting a dying man. While he lay on his deathbed, unable to talk or function in any way, Rozenfeld went to him and sang him one of his favorite songs — “Shalom Rav.”
And he burst out loudly, singing along.
“His body and his brain were shutting down, and they just got lit up by this song,” Rozenfeld recalled. “That’s the power of music, and when someone is professional, they should be and usually would be more flexible in that we know more things. Yes, I know that, but I could also sing a Yiddish song to somebody else.”
Nowadays, though, people are less interested in prayer, but that just “means that cantors need to be creative,” Rozenfeld said. “We need to love prayer and connect to prayer very deeply because we can’t teach people something they don’t know or have. We can’t give them something we don’t have. I teach that to the students a lot. We need to love it, and then we need to look at every single person and know how do I connect to that person, how do I connect that person to prayer, how do I connect this congregation to prayer.”
Professionalizing the Cantorate
The role of music and prayer in the Jewish tradition stretches back to the Torah. The Book of Exodus famously tells of how, when the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt, they celebrated with singing, tambourines and dancing. The Talmud mentions that Levites would sing and play instruments in the Temple.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century, the earliest iteration of cantors began to emerge. As prayer grew more important in ritual life, synagogues began designating congregants to pray on behalf of the community.
But another 1,000 years would pass before the modern cantorate appeared in the 18th century. According to My Jewish Learning, synagogues increasingly began to emulate their Christian counterparts, and that included the development of a canon of liturgy.
Today, it is mostly Reform and Conservative synagogues that employ cantors, especially at larger congregations. Orthodox synagogues generally do not employ full-time, professional cantors.
In 2008, during the Great Recession, synagogues struggled financially like everyone else. A number took a look at their clergy and felt like someone had to go. That someone was often the cantor.
“There was a real drop in congregation’s finances,” explained Cantor Lynn Torgove, head of the Department of Vocal Arts at Hebrew College. “They didn’t have the money to have multiple clergy, but that’s not true anymore, but perceptions take a long time to catch up with reality.”
Synagogues that haven’t had cantors for this reason now want them again, Torgove said. In the Conservative movement, for example, cantors are retiring, and synagogues are struggling to replace them. Cantorial students generally get multiple job offers upon graduating, Torgove noted.
But cantors are still often undervalued. Congregants frequently see them as playing sidekick to rabbis.
It’s a point of frustration to Jessica Woolf, a third-year cantorial student.
“It’s not that one person knows more or is better than the other,” she said. “We just have different specialties. It’s like, you wouldn’t go to a neurosurgeon when you have a toothache. A neurologist and a dentist are both doctors. They just have different specialties, and one isn’t better or more of a doctor than the other.”
Woolf grew up in a secular home in Portland, Oregon. She didn’t have a Jewish education or a Bat Mitzvah as part of her upbringing. When she went off to Oberlin College to study music, she got involved in Hillel. She eventually had a Bat Mitzvah when she was 21.
Through her experience at Hillel, as well as through her aunt, who is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Judaism became a larger part of her life. After college, Woolf worked in the Jewish community, as a religious school administrator and with youth organizations.
She eventually decided to pursue her cantorial ordination. She can see herself working at a mid-sized synagogue and running a religious school after graduation.
“Rabbis don’t just give sermons,” Woolf said. “Today, rabbis are out there protesting. We all do pastoral work. The role of clergy in general is changing because we’re in a changing role. Judaism adapts. Judaism needs to adapt, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The Power of Music
Mondays at Hebrew College end with Kol Arev rehearsal. Cantorial students are required to be a part of the Hebrew College chamber choir, but rabbinical students, faculty and others can audition and join as well.
Here, the power of music to connect to spirituality is on full display. Voices soar and harmonize.
“Music is the gateway to prayer,” Woolf said. “The words on the page, not that many people really understand the Hebrew on the page, and the kinds of congregations that I’ve served in, we do a little bit of English here and there, but for the most part, we sing in Hebrew. That in itself is a connection to Judaism.”
In an era of increased anxiety over synagogue membership, music — and, by extension, cantors — may be able to play an important role.
Rabbi Dan Judson, dean of the rabbinical school, has researched the demographic changes that have led to the struggles that some synagogues are facing in terms of membership. Some of that, he said, comes from the urbanization of the Jewish community — suburban synagogues are, in particular, struggling as Jewish communities move from the suburbs to the city.
There are also more options now than just the synagogue for people to find community, he said. And all places of worship, not just synagogues, are finding their congregants are becoming more politically homogeneous. People seem to want to pray along others that vote like them.
Despite the challenging environment, there are success stories.
“If I had to look at synagogues that are successful … one of the key elements of their success is music,” Judson said. “We are clearly moving away from an operatic and disengaged sense of Judaism, where people listen to a cantor sing beautifully. We have moved away from that. There are moments still where that’s called for but, by and large, people are looking for music that engages them, engages their soul and is uplifting or compelling.
“Every synagogue that’s doing well has music that is alive and compelling,” he continued. “And it’s all kind of participatory. The ones that are doing it really well, it’s participatory. It’s also sophisticated. It’s serious, but it’s also playful. It’s all of these things.”
Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld has noticed the same trend. Synagogues that are doing well now take relationships seriously and have real substance. Music and prayer are central to that, she said.
“People want to be at synagogue and feel like there’s something real happening,” said Anisfeld, who received her ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Music, Anisfeld speculated, exists at the place where the physical meets the spiritual, giving it a certain power.
“Neshima is breath is Hebrew, and neshama is also soul,” she said. “It’s the same Hebrew root for breath and soul, so there’s something about the physicality of singing, and yet, it’s also touching, this very spiritual, emotional place within us. Something about that is part of the mystery and the magic of what is happening there. … Ideology sort of falls away. When you’re singing together, for the moment, you’re not arguing about what you mean by the words. You’re singing.”
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and the Jewish Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Jewish Federation Endowments Corp.
A podcast by political reporters that I regularly listen to recently found the contributors stepping back and reflecting on this tumultuous moment in American political life in which we find ourselves. It’s a powerful and humbling responsibility, they acknowledge, to digest and report these events as the news is breaking — “to write the first draft of history.”
That phrase stuck in my mind — the idea of responding to events as they are taking place around you and presenting them in a form that you hope will both provide insight and also lift up the crucial episodes, ideas and themes that readers need to understand.
Moses has a similar set of concerns in this week’s parshah but on a far grander, even cosmic, scale. On the last day of a long and illustrious life, Moses is trying not only to recount the people’s history but to locate their experiences in a definitive framework that will continue to support and guide them after his death — not only in the difficult weeks and months to follow, but for millennia afterward. In framing and giving enduring meaning to the Israelites’ experience, Moses is trying to provide the last draft of history.
In his parting words to the people, Moses seeks to convey the entire sweep of history, from God’s creation of the world — “when the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of humankind” (32:8) — to the very end of time when God will act on the people’s behalf so they know “There is no other god beside Me” (32:29).
In one dramatic chapter of poetry, Moses relates those critical events that have shaped — and will shape — the Israelites’ understanding of their place in the world and underscores the larger lessons they need to remember: that God is constantly present, that God demands the people’s faithfulness and will ultimately act on their behalf after they suffer abuse and subjugation at the hands of foreign nations.
While journalists and reporters scramble to provide an accurate accounting of rapidly shifting events and breaking news, Moses’ project involves stepping back from a particular moment in time to frame the larger themes and teachings that will continue to guide the Israelites long after he is gone. While it is critical that he “gets his facts right,” he needs to find a way to transcend the timely to leave the people with a narrative that is truly timeless — one whose core messages and truths cannot be undone or undermined by any subsequent historical events or competing accounts.
To put it differently, Moses wants to make sure the Jewish people won’t be so consumed by the events taking place around them each day that they lose sight of the larger cosmic drama of which they are a part. We are supposed to walk through this world with all its opportunities and dangers with our eyes focused always on the big picture.
In that vein, it’s striking that this parshah, grounded in the theme of what is permanent and enduring, introduces a new name for God that has never before appeared in Torah. In the span of a few verses Moses refers to God four times as Tzur — Rock (a name that may be familiar from the Chanukah song “Ma’oz Tzur” — literally “Fortress Rock”).
The image of God as Rock underscores the unshakable and unchanging nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with God that Moses seeks to convey and, by extension, of God’s promises to them. In the long sweep of history, Moses is reassuring the people that God is truly the bedrock of existence, the ground of being in which all of us are anchored and can find shelter and support.
It is striking that Ha’azinu, with its emphasis on solidity and its introduction of God as Rock, is always the last weekly portion we read before Sukkot, the holiday in which we eat outside in flimsy, temporary booths and read Ecclesiastes’ admonition that everything in this world is fleeting. Sukkot, more than any other observance in the Jewish calendar, lifts up the idea of impermanence in recognizing the fragility of the walls and roofs that we depend on to keep us warm and safe.
But the messages of Ha’azinu and Sukkot complement each other powerfully. As we celebrate the coming holiday — referred to in liturgy as z’man simchateinu, time of our rejoicing — we are encouraged to realize that true security and joy do not come from status and possessions, both of which can be taken away at any time.
Instead, we leave our homes and go outside precisely to reorient ourselves to the resources and blessings that are most indispensable — the deeper values and purpose in which our lives are anchored, those meanings and connections which are far more lasting and unshakable than strong walls and sturdy locks.
In a world whose pace feels more hectic than ever and where each draft of history is being rewritten before the ink even dries on the previous one, Parshat Ha’azinu and Sukkot encourage us to take a step back from the distraction and the noise and consider what relationships, ideas and values form the rocks of our lives.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman is rabbi emeritus of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.