2018 is the year of “Chai” or life. I am thrilled to embrace this year of life with this exciting change in the lives of your congregation and my own family as I become your cantor. I had heard great things about Temple Jeremiah when I arrived here in 2015. It is a synagogue that values and embraces all musical traditions, even celebrating services with the organ. I always felt that it would be a cantor’s dream: to have the opportunity to create worship by incorporating beautiful melodies of our classical tradition right alongside contemporary melodies. This can evoke powerful, meaningful prayer because it gives the space for contemplation and participation. Last March I attended the Inclusion Seminar you hosted. From the moment one enters the building, it was clear that Temple Jeremiah is a congregation that cares deeply about the Jewish values of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming guests), and empowering those who are often forgotten in our communities. A few months later, I attended a picnic BBQ at a good friend/colleague’s home, and I found out that one of the kindest people I knew in seminary, Rabbi Rachel Heaps, was your new Assistant Rabbi. Shortly after that, I experienced the wonderful sentiments of your Senior Rabbi, Paul Cohen, as he thoughtfully paid tribute to our beloved Jerry Kaye, who was retiring from his almost 50-year position as Director of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI). As I listened to Rabbi Cohen, I kept thinking that it would be amazing to work with this team, and to be a part of this community. I must confess that I even said a little prayer in my head, asking for this to happen!
I love being a cantor so much because I can help children and adults of all ages at the most vulnerable times of their lives, often through music. Last year I had the great honor of “singing someone home.” It began when the husband of a woman who had been on a very tumultuous journey with ovarian cancer called me the day before Rosh Hashanah and asked if I would come and sing to her. She had been in the choir many years ago and he thought that the music would help her. I marveled as her entire family—all the adult children, grandchildren, and even children they had fostered—gathered at her bedside with me and my guitar as we sang songs they grew up with by Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper, Peter Paul and Mary, and even some Yiddish songs. For those few moments, the sadness lifted, and her face lit up. Weeks later, her husband called me again, this time, to bring my guitar and “sing her home.” We sang her favorite song, “Lechi Lach.” Shortly after I left, she passed. I will always think of her, and probably fight to hold back tears, every time I sing that song.
From a young age, I believed that my voice and musical gifts were divinely given to me to be used to help bring out the Divine inside others, because we are all created B’Tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). I am entrusted, as a member of the clergy, with the sacred responsibility to usher my congregation through the most important moments of their lives, from birth to death, weddings, B’nai Mitzvah, and conversions. This is a gift beyond measure.
Before becoming a cantor, I had a career in musical theater, opera, music, and as an entertainer. One highlight for me was when I was on the Broadway National Tour of CATS. We were actually in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater for a long stint in 2005. I met my husband, Ross Friedman, on a cruise boat where I was working as an entertainer in 2006. But don’t get too excited–it wasn’t the “Love Boat.” It was a floating paddle boat that traveled up and down the Mississippi River. One day in the Officer’s Mess, I met this cute, sweet be-spectacled guy from Long Island, NY who was the Chief Purser. Bonus was that he was Jewish, and I had been looking into converting to Judaism for many months. We fell in love quickly. Ross and I have two little miracle children who have always been very engaged in our synagogues: Abigail who just turned 5, and Zev who is 3 ½. They are super excited to become part of the Jeremiah family.
In my opinion, one of the most important jobs of a cantor is to help people find and tap into the special light that exists within each and every one of us. It has been exciting to facilitate this in so many ways. In my first congregation, I created a 50 voice Children’s Choir from the ground up, that sang nearly once a month. In my previous congregation, our Adult Choir became a “Kehilah Shirah,” a true singing community, where we rehearsed once a week, each time beginning our rehearsal with a short meditation, good and welfare, and an opportunity to say Kaddish for those in need (though it was not a requirement for everyone to attend every rehearsal—I’m flexible). We began a teen acapella choir; an intergenerational Purim Schpiel written and facilitated entirely by the congregation; and we created an intergenerational volunteer band. Each of these groups actively participated in our worship and it was incredible to see the talent just rise in all of them.
I have invited anyone who wants to do so to sing a beautiful duet with me: a contemplative setting of “Y’hiyu L’Ratzon,” which occurs at the end of our silent prayer. It is in moments like these that I feel I have truly seen the Divine in each of them because many of the participants are doing something they always wanted to do but never thought they could. And they rise to the occasion in profound ways. What a privilege it has been to be able to facilitate this, and to witness the powerful response of the congregation as their peers are helping them to pray. The naches (joy) I get from this is greater than any expressions of praise that I ever received for my own singing.
Please know that my door is ALWAYS open to any one of you who would like to sing with me, no matter what your level of ability. I would love to continue this tradition. Who will go first??
In one of our Chassidic texts, Panim Yafot by R. Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz of Frankfort (1750-1815) we learn that when we teach, in order to achieve the utmost level of righteousness in ourselves, the teacher must always teach with intent to not raise up herself, rather, to enable the student to rise. When this occurs, the teacher will “flourish like a cedar in Lebanon” (Psalm 92:13). Let us flourish together, learning from one another, empowering one another to rise to our potential, and creating relationships where we can foster our passions, grow from our challenges, and be like the strong cedars in Lebanon, all within our Temple Jeremiah community. I am so honored to be your cantor, and I look forward to getting to know all of you.
Cantor Susie Friedman