Tuesday, June 11, 2013

At the moment, I'm preparing for a trip to Israel. . . leaving tonight.  Next week, I'll be attending the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference in Jerusalem -- an amazing gathering about which I'll write more when it happens.  THIS week, I'll be visiting with my daughter Audrey and her fiance, Sahar -- starting in Haifa.  Below, I'm sharing the remarks I gave last week at the Honorary Doctorate Convocation for about 25 cantorial colleagues, held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. . . 

Remarks delivered at Honorary PhD Convocation – June 6, 2013
Cantor Jack Chomsky

What an amazing honor to stand here at this moment—to have been honored in this way at this institution, along with such a fabulous group of colleagues.

As the President of the Cantors Assembly at the time this event was originally scheduled to take place, I have the honor of expressing gratitude and sharing some thoughts on behalf of my colleagues honored today.

Of course, we are mindful of the thousands of lives displaced by the massive hurricane last October.  I grew up on Long Island and I know the geography and the feel of those autumn hurricanes.  But I can’t imagine the devastation of this one, even having seen the pictures.  We salute New Yorkers and all those in the areas affected by the storm, and hope they have received and will continue to receive what they need to be sustained and to flourish again.

I am grateful that members of the Cantors Assembly can be honored at today’s Convocation.  It is something that our leaders worked hard for—and I want to pay special tribute and appreciation to Sam Rosenbaum z’l and Steve Stein for all their efforts to make days like this a reality.

The custom among our rabbinic colleagues is to provide this honor to individuals who have been in the profession for 25 years.  Because there was such a “backlog” of colleagues who had not yet been honored, it has been necessary for us, until now, to honor hazzanim who have been at work considerably longer.  A particular downside of that is that some of our colleagues were really too old by the time the Seminary was ready to bestow this honor to receive this honor effectively.

We are now down to about 30 years—and perhaps next time we will arrive at 25. 

I am pretty certain that this is the last time that all the honorees will be men.  That fact does bracket our careers in a certain way:  When I was in cantorial school at JTS in the early 1980s, women could not receive the diploma of hazzan or formally enroll in the cantorial school.  Instead, they needed to be students in the Seminary College of Jewish Music.  The spring of my first year in the school, I did a survey at the Cantors Assembly Convention and found that the majority of members understood that women were on the way into the profession and the organization.  More welcomed it than didn’t.

Now, of course, the school’s director is a woman—Nancy Abramson—and as of 2 weeks ago – serves as President of the Cantors Assembly.    Where once upon a time we wondered if women would be included in the profession, today we sense their absence among the honorees, but know that here, only time holds them back.  That’s progress, although we have seen that we have many more miles to go in Eretz Yisrael in the acceptance of women in religious roles.

When I entered JTS, Morton Waldman was Dean of the Cantors Institute.  During my first year at the school, he died tragically, and was replaced by Rabbi Morton Leifman, a mentor (along with Rabbi Waldman) for many of us.  We are proud of the hazzanim who followed him into leadership of the Cantorial School—Henry Rosenblum and Robert Kieval, both of whom have deservedly received this honor previously—and now Nancy.

I want to express my personal appreciation to Chancellor Eisen for being with us here today, for his inspiring words, and for presiding over the remarkable transformation of this institution.  JTS as I remember it was a great place to learn about Jewish tradition, but not necessarily a great place to connect with the vitality of contemporary Jewish life or a sense of expanding community. 

I believe that hazzanim, by the nature of our place in hopeful equilibrium between the kahal (congregation) and the Creator, are particularly connected to the emotional side of things in a way that wasn’t typical of the Seminary.  I want to credit Henry Rosenblum for bringing a great deal of personal passion and warmth on our behalf into this place.  That spirit is now, through the work of others, beginning to pervade the institution.

As to those who receive this honor today. . . WOW!  During the run up to the initially planned October Convocation, I asked them about some of their accomplishments, their mentors and their hopes.  WOW!

As you may have heard in their citations, those honored today have written symphonies and operas, performed all over the world in every conceivable venue, taught thousands of students for b’nei mitzvah, opened their homes to create Jewish lives, created opportunities for people of all abilities to participate in Jewish life, served as diplomats for Jewish music, culture and religion in Israel, Poland, Germany and elsewhere, commissioned hundreds of musical works, published music for hundreds of colleagues featuring music written by dozens of colleagues, produced CDs distributed to hundreds of thousands of people around the U.S. and elsewhere featuring dozens of colleagues and teaching about all kinds of Jewish music, prayed for and with military men and women around the world, served as chaplains in nursing homes, performed thousands of brisses (OK—not too many of us have done the briss thing, but a few of us have done lots of them!), attended the finest music schools, JTS and other cantorial schools, been heard in outer space, served as Rabbis in multiple congregations, and so much more. . .

We couldn’t have done all this work without the patient and selfless support of our wives, children, parents, rabbinic and other colleagues, and the generosity of our congregations and communities.  But let me say again first and foremost—our wives.  As noted previously, this is the last time it will be ONLY wives.  To be the spouse of a clergyman is NOT a simple matter.  It brings some benefits and many challenges.  Thank you, ladies, for bringing us to this day.

Our teachers and mentors included, among others, Max Wohlberg, Dr. Albert Weisser, David Tilman, Faith Steinsnyder, Dr. Johanna Spector, Noach Schall, Bernard Saitz, Shlomo Ravitz, Dov Propis, Shayna Postman, Moshe Nathanson, Louis Moss, Sol Mendelson, Joe Levine, Mati Lazar, David Kusevitzky, Sholom Katz, Jack Goldstein, Charles Davidson, Louis Danto, Ben Belfer, Zvee Aroni, Chaim Adler and each other.

We remember colleagues who should have been here with us today, but died too soon—like Sam Pessaroff and Stephen Merkel—and, I am sure, others.

I am personally grateful to Hazzan Ivan Perlman, in whose choir I sang at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, Rhode Island, who showed me what a hazzan could be and propelled me along the path to and through this profession.

One colleague suggested that I should mention that Ordination is in order.  That, to this day, the graduates of JTS’ Miller School are considered invested—but not ordained, as they now are at other cantorial schools. 

This distinction never mattered to me.  My cantorial and rabbinic colleagues know that I have always acted like an equal partner, and have allowed me this parity at every turn.  But the point is a good one.  And as we look forward to including women among those honored next time around, perhaps we can also look forward to this change in the trajectory of the graduates of this institution. 

Failure to do so frankly makes it more difficult for JTS’ program to compete with the other programs available to aspiring cantors.

But that is mostly a discussion for another time and place—or at least another time in this place!

Back to my colleagues being honored today.  We’ve been at it for at least 30 years.  I don’t know that any of us has 30 years left—but it is clear that many of us will still be continuing our efforts for many years to come.

We all thank you all for this day that we will remember every day for the rest of our lives.

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