Moving from music to art

Moving from music to art

But, says local cantor, leaving is hard

Artwork by Cantor Josephson

After 20 years spent singing, teaching, conducting, and embracing the congregation at River Edge’s Temple Avodat Shalom, Cantor Ronit Josephson of Tenafly is hanging up her ritual robe and picking up a paint brush – again.

“To be an artist, you can’t be interrupted,” she said. But as a member of the clergy, “I was always on the job, 24/7, even on my day off. If someone needs you, you must be totally committed.”

So “I stopped painting and the muse left me,” Cantor Josephson said. “But now a voice is shouting in my ear to do it.

“I’m leaving because after 20 years, I have another passion. There’s a nagging voice telling me I must do it. But I want people to know that for the clergy to leave is one of the hardest things in their lives. People come to me and say they’re sad I’m leaving, but they don’t realize how difficult it is for me.”

The renewed desire to paint started three years ago, when a congregant, a travel agent, arranged a trip to France for the cantor and her family.

“I had an opportunity to go to Givernet, the home of Claude Monet,” she said. “There was a whole wall with 24 attempts at one painting. I looked at the first attempt. It looked like the work of a 5-year-old. I realized then that there’s hope for me, too. The voice in my head said go do it. See how good you are.”

But leaving is bittersweet. The congregation has become a second home not only for her but for her husband, Howard, and their daughter, Nicole, now 20, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at the synagogue.

Cantor Ronit Josephson

Cantor Josephson began her career singing opera, with no thought of entering the cantorate. Born in Tel Aviv, she came to the United States to study music, first attending Northern Illinois University and then graduating from the Julliard School of Music.

In the mid-1980s, working with an agent, she performed with the Seattle Opera, the Philadelphia Opera, and the American Opera Center at Lincoln Center. She also appeared as guest soloist with both the Houston Symphony and the Utah Symphony,

But then, she said, “It was kind of like divine intervention.” On behalf of “a friend of a friend, I did a favor for a cantor who wrote a composition for soloists in Hebrew. The soprano got sick and I had to learn this beautiful piece in about four days. I could do it fast because of my Hebrew and musical background.

“I felt such a calling, so close to the Torah,” she said. “I saw the letters. In Orthodox synagogues in Israel, I was lucky to see the men’s hats. I went to HUC” – the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College – “and they said they could exempt me from the first year of studies in Israel, but I would need to pass a difficult exam.”

The eight-hour test, in which she was asked to read and translate a Hebrew newspaper without vowels, was “no big deal for me. I got in.”

Graduating from HUC’s School of Sacred Music in 1993, she served as cantor at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester from 1992 to 1995.

“I continued working at Croton-on-Hudson as a part-time cantor as a continuation of my student pulpit,” she said. “They asked me to stay on. But when my daughter was born, I realized it was too far to schlep with a newborn.”

Fortunately, the River Edge synagogue, then Temple Sholom, was looking for a cantor then.

“They asked if I could start unofficially in May and teach the b’nai mitzvah. They had about 43 of them that year. So I got to know the people there beginning in May and June.

“They never had a full-time cantor before,” she added, “and when I leave they’re going to have a cantorial student.”

When she was hired, “they weren’t sure if they wanted a full-time or part-time rabbi. They asked me at the interview if I was looking to work full time or part time. I said I didn’t look at it as being full time or part time, but as a job. I go and do the work and I leave when I finish.

“They liked that,” she said. “That answer got me the job.”

Surprisingly, she said, while she comes from the operatic world, it is not the singing that she likes most. “I didn’t need to give concerts from the bimah,” she said. “I wanted to have a singing congregation, to have everybody join me in singing.”

Her favorite part of the job is working with children.

“I fell in love with teaching kids,” she said. “That is the most enjoyable part of the work.” By her own estimation, she has prepared at least a thousand students to become bar or bat mitzvah.

“I remember every one,” she said. “To me, they were all precious stones, each one scintillating in a different way.” But the ones she was most in awe of “were the ones who came from households where the parents were indifferent – the kids who decided they wanted to have it and made their parents become involved in the school.” The bar/bat mitzvah experience is not just for the kids, she said, but “invites the whole family to become integrated into the life of the community.”

Cantor Josephson said that most people really do not know what cantors do.

“A lot of time, people would come and say, we love your voice. I would think, how nice, but if they only knew that singing is about 5 percent of what a cantor does, especially in a smaller congregation. You do so many things.”

This cantor is particularly interested in teaching Torah, “and whenever it is needed, I fill in and enjoy it very much. I love to be able to chant from the Torah and translate on the spot,” she said, pointing out that Hebrew is her first language.

“Before thinking of being a cantor, I liked Judaic studies, Hebrew grammar, Bible studies. I took it from a young age and to this day I love it.

“I have the ability to help and translate. Sometimes, translations are not accurate. When you’re able to understand the words, you can see a big difference in what the English and Hebrew say. It opens doors to discussion and input from participants.”

What else has she done for the shul?

“You name it; I did it,” she said, noting that she teaches the seventh grade at the synagogue’s religious school. “It’s my beloved grade. I witness a great transformation as the kids prepare for bar/bat mitzvah. It’s a different thing to be on the bimah with students you’ve known a long time.

“All the kids know me,” she said. “The relationship grows throughout the years. I use that to ask teenagers after bar/bat mitzvah to chant Torah portions on the High Holidays. Some people say they’re afraid to say no to me.”

The cantor also conducts both the junior and the senior choirs – which come together to sing each year during Mitzvah Day – and takes turns with Rabbi Paul Jacobson, the congregation’s religious leader, at conducting Shabbat services at Five Star Premier Residences of Teaneck, an assisted living facility.

Once a month, Cantor Josephson and Rabbi Jacobson, along with religious leaders from River Edge, Oradell, and Paramus, meet for lunch. “It’s very important and interesting,” she said. “We get to know each other, so, for example, if there is a problem in a school or incidents of anti-Semitism, it’s much easier to address because of this connection. We also find out that we share common problems,” like attendance at services, domestic violence, and cases where people need special assistance.

Some aspect of her job, however, have been more difficult.

“The hardest thing is pastoral care,” she said. “The longer a clergy member is at a community, the harder it becomes,” because congregants become friends. “When someone of a ripe old age departs, that’s acceptable. But when someone in their fifties dies of a terrible cancer, leaving three teenagers and a wife who is struggling, it takes a toll on the clergy. I don’t know how well congregants can understand that. It becomes painful.

“So why do I love the community and why have I stayed so long? What is so special? It’s important to say thank you,” she said, noting that “there’s a danger in starting to single out people to say thank you and forget someone else. They’re all precious and dear to my heart.

“This is a very special congregation because we have so many people who care and volunteer. It’s not a particularly wealthy community or congregation, but we have a bunch of unbelievably committed people.”

Having worked with several rabbis over her 20-year run, the cantor said that “every rabbi is different and brings new things. For example, Rabbi Jacobson spent seven years in Australia, so he brings a new outlook and angle on a lot of rituals. Each rabbi has different views and habits.”

Still, she said, she’s been lucky to be part of a “very good team” throughout her career.

“I’ve had a great ride,” she said. “I was welcomed with open arms by a loving congregation. I love them to death.”

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