Converting to Judaism

The Oys and Joys of Choosing A Jewish Life

Can You Feel It?

on May 13, 2017

It’s Thursday night, and I’m sitting in a bar with a friend. Earlier that day, we had said farewell to our graduating rabbis and cantors, and now we’re thinking about our far-off and yet not-so-far-away graduations. I tell her that while I feel like I’ve learned a lot this year, I just don’t feel like a cantor yet. I don’t know if I ever will or when that will happen. Ordination? Interning? A few years after being in the field? It’s easy to get bogged down in verb conjugations and musical modes and Talmudic debate in your first year of school and forget that there is a world beyond our beit midrash, let alone feel prepared for it.

Friday night, nearly 24 hours later, I’m sitting across a table from the same friend, and I smile and tell her that tonight was a good reminder of why I do what I do. I’ve just finished leading my first service for residents in a senior center, and I couldn’t have imagined a warmer and more fulfilling experience. Their love for the music and my love of the prayers and their affection kept me smiling the whole time. Though my mind raced every second of the way, being able to look at the circle of people surrounding me with their small cups of wine or grape juice in hand as I led them in Kiddush reminded me why I do what I do. Why we, the Jewish leaders, do what we do in service of our communities.

Being a clergy member means acting as a focal point. I hesitate to say this, because I don’t really like to be the center of attention. Like, ever. I have colleagues who thrive in the spotlight, and I often think, nope, that’s not me.  But I will admit that people look to the cantor for guidance and leadership, and that is something I love.

I like to think of the cantor as the concertmaster of an orchestra. She is on the same level as everyone else because she is just one player in the midst of many, but she is the one cuing and leading people. In a symphony where there is no conductor, the concertmaster is the one who makes the musical decisions. Together, the whole group creates the music. Together, the entire congregation sends their prayers to God. The cantor is just the one guiding them through the experience. At the end of the day, the congregation could function without the cantor, but the entire process goes more smoothly when there is someone to look to for cues, melodies, and consistency. Not only that, but our Jewish leaders are the ones who can take a bunch of skilled musicians and transform them into a fantastic, cohesive orchestra. We are the community builders.

For this service in particular, I built community through memory and connection. As much as the world needs us to be innovators, we are also preservers of a tradition. A tradition so powerful that connects people not just with their childhood from 70, 80 years ago, but also to their parents and their parents’ tradition and their parents’ tradition. There is something sacred in preservation, which I particularly felt when leading this service. The tunes I used were familiar ones, not just because they garnered the most participation, but because they were the appropriate channel at this place and time for a spiritual experience. They allowed us to form a connection among ourselves and to the congregations of years past that used these same tunes.

Walking into an already established Jewish community, I felt that I was both able to build it up and join it as I led the congregants through the service. The fact that everyone appreciated my services and I enjoyed the people there was a huge plus. I have finally felt what it means to embody the work that I wish to do.

Now it’s Saturday morning, and as I clip my kippah to my head before heading out to lead my weekly kids’ service, I smile at myself in the mirror.

“Looking good, Cantor Jenn Boyle.”

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