For the past 18 years, Cantor Ellen Tilem has been stirring congregants at Temple Emeth in Teaneck to lift their voices in prayer through song, whether they be traditional Jewish melodies or modern tunes.
The congregation will honor Tilem for her “chai” tenure at a special Friday night service and reception on June 22. The community is invited.
“It feels like a great accomplishment for me to be here for 18 years,” said Tilem, who lives in Teaneck with her husband and three daughters. The biggest challenge ahead, she said, “is to make synagogue services meaningful for modern Jews and to keep the children interested and connected to Jewish life.”
|Cantor Ellen Tilem|
After Tilem was ordained as a cantor at Hebrew Union College in 1994, she was drawn to Temple Emeth because it was compatible with her pulpit style, she said. “The congregation was warm and welcoming, and they were open to a Reform cantor who was interested in singing a variety of Jewish music.” She has felt so happy serving the congregation that she never left it.
Over the years, the demographics of the community surrounding the synagogue evolved. Its leadership changed, some older members died, and others moved away. But Temple Emeth remains a vibrant congregation, bursting with activities and beautiful music springing from both Tilem’s rich repertoire of melodies and the three choirs with which she works.
Tilem’s enthusiasm for Jewish music is contagious, Micki Grunstein, Emeth’s past president, said. “She has changed the face of music at Emeth. It’s participatory,” Grunstein said. “People love to come and listen to our band and choirs. The music is changing and exciting and current.”
Shel Grossman, whose two sons sing in the choir, added that Tilem has “a tremendous knowledge of Jewish liturgical music and knows how to get children excited about it and presents it in a way that’s fun.” Grossman added that Tilem is the reason her children want to stay in choir next year, although it will take away from time they could spend with their friends. “She really does connect with the kids in a very meaningful way. She’s good with everyone.”
Steven Sirbu, the synagogue’s rabbi for the last nine years, said that Tilem’s voice “captures traditional chazzanut and the awe that can come with Jewish liturgical music, but she’s also very open to experimentation with camp melodies and folk melodies and the use of a guitar. She is creative and innovative and that can really serve a congregation well.”
But beyond her musical talent, Tilem also is a great pastoral presence in the congregation, he said. “People feel they can open up to her and she offers a lot of comfort when they go through times of hardship.”
Indeed Tilem’s work seems to stretch the typical job title of cantor. She teaches Torah classes and presides over weddings, funerals, and baby namings. When the rabbi recently took a three-month sabbatical, she served as his stand-in.
Some liken her to a bridge, playing an important role in the diverse Teaneck Jewish community.
Howard Jachter, the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Orthodox Congregation of Teaneck, praised Tilem for her “incredible ability to interact effectively and comfortably with the entire spectrum of the Jewish community.”
Jachter, who also teaches at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, found Tilem particularly helpful when she joined him two years ago as he addressed the senior class at the Hebrew Union College about divorce, and about why many non-Orthodox Jews feel it is important to get a divorce decree from an Orthodox rabbi. “Cantor Tilem displayed her ability to cut across all barriers by eloquently explaining why an Orthodox get is important for a divorcing couple to obtain regardless of personal affiliation,” Jachter said.
Sirbu added, “There are times when Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews are talking past each other and don’t get each other. She has served as a bridge between the two communities. It’s one of the strengths that we’ve come to rely on.”
Tilem feels fortunate to have been nurtured by the congregation and that she never has been judged by any part of the Jewish community. “I’ve been blessed with wonderful friends and neighbors,” she said.
Over the years, Tilem said she’s become very close to the 350-family congregation, and looks at it as her extended family.
Indeed, her favorite aspect of the job, she said, is connecting with people. “I have a unique perspective of peoples’ families – I am let into their lives in a different way than others would be.” The lifecycle events – hospital visits, weddings, and baby namings – “make what I do the most incredible profession in the world. I feel so lucky for that.”
When she was a child, Tilem’s family took her to the Catskills for the high holidays, and she was introduced to the world of chazzanut. She yearned to be a cantor. She started singing Israeli and Jewish music when she was young, and when women started being ordained as cantors in the Reform movement, Tilem’s Conservative father brought her to a Reform synagogue to hear a woman cantor sing. Today, she is grateful that she pursued what some may have considered an unconventional career.
“For me to have the opportunity to help people connect to Hashem on a deeper level is a true blessing,” she said.