Paying it forward
Local Russian-born cantor, Ukrainian musician perform together on erev Shavuot
When the opportunity to give back to Ukrainian refugee children living in Warsaw arose last summer, Cantor Maria Dubinsky of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge seized the moment.
A native of Moscow, Cantor Dubinsky thought her Russian language skills could be helpful. When she was 14, she and her family moved from Russia to Israel, where she completed her high school education and served in the Israeli Defense Forces. “I did not fight on the front, but I couldn’t ignore that young Israeli soldiers — the husbands, brothers, and fathers of my friends and neighbors — could be lost at any moment,” she said.
Following her IDF service, she earned her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem and trained as a classical performer and opera singer. “I wanted to be a musician my entire life,” she said.
After she moved to the United States in 2006, she enrolled at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan; she was ordained as a cantor there in 2010. She joined the clergy at Avodat Shalom in 2017.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Cantor Dubinsky was reminded of the atrocities of war. “The brutality — the magnitude of what was happening — it was so uncivilized,” she said. At a loss to understand the inexplicable actions of the country of her birth, Cantor Dubinsky could not remain impartial. So she decided to use her musical talents to help.
In collaboration with a group of 20 Russian-speaking cantorial colleagues throughout the U.S. to raise money for relief efforts, fundraising concerts were scheduled and performed on Zoom. “Ukrainian refugees were arriving in Warsaw seeking shelter, work, childcare and schooling,” she said. Compelled to do more, her research led her to the JCC of Warsaw, one of the organizations actively working with Ukrainian children. “The Jewish community in Warsaw is small, but extremely close knit,” Cantor Dubinsky said. “They all work together to provide the most valuable opportunities for Ukrainian families.”
When the opportunity to support the JCC of Warsaw and its relief efforts emerged, Cantor Dubinsky was determined to be a part of it. But members of her congregation at Temple Avodat Shalom had some misgivings. “You are from Moscow!” they said. “You don’t speak Ukrainian!” Cantor Dubinsky replied confidently, “I am a Jew from Moscow who speaks Russian.” Committed to leading by example, she promised to offer the refugees her experience and her empathy.
It was also an opportunity to help her older daughter, Maya, see past her adolescent struggles and gain some realistic perspective on the world. “I wanted her to see with her own eyes another side of life,” she said. The family decided that her husband, Arcady, would stay home with their younger daughter, Noa.
Within two days of the announcement that she and Maya were going to go to Warsaw and that she had to raise funds for the trip, Temple Avodat Shalom collected $5,000, and gave Cantor Dubinsky the freedom to use it at her discretion.
The plan was for Cantor Dubinsky to teach music at the JCC of Warsaw’s summer camp, where Maya would be a counselor. Housed in the Lauder-Morasha School, the camp offered more than 50 children between the ages of 5 and 16 two-week camp sessions, where they were free to have fun.
Cantor Dubinsky speaks of her experience last summer with deep gratitude. “Not only did these children immigrate to another country and live with the uncertainty of ever returning to their homes, but they feared losing engagement in regular after-school activities like gymnastics or chess, playing musical instruments, or sports,” she said. “By participating in the two-week camp, Ukrainian refugee children had the chance to step away from the trauma of war, displacement, and fear and engage in a manner that brought them back to the familiar routines they’d left behind.”
Most of the families were mothers and children; their fathers had to stay home to fight. Camp gave kids the opportunity not to have to worry about their mothers’ fears and their fathers’ absences.
Cantor Dubinsky was acutely aware of the campers’ need to maintain their activities and hone their social, musical, and extracurricular skills while their mothers worked. “The change in their lives had been so drastic and unexpected, they needed continuity.” Therefore, she was committed to ensuring that their musical training remained consistent. It was while planning for the camp talent show that Cantor Dubinsky’s eyes were opened to the artistic gifts these children had to offer. Using a portable keyboard that she’d borrowed from a local synagogue, she accompanied the children as they sang for their auditions.
“On the evening before the show, one of the 6-year-olds from Maya’s group was separated from the other campers,” she said. “Everyone was looking for him.” Miron was determined to perform in the talent show, even though he was too young for it, so he had wandered away from the group to get to the piano, an instrument he did not play. (He has played violin since he was 3.) When the counselors found him, he was using one finger to pick out “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to accompany himself as he sang.
The following day, the camp director told Maria that the keyboard she’d borrowed had to be returned to the local synagogue. “But there’s something you should know,” she said. “Miron’s mother is an accomplished pianist and she wants to teach her son to play the piano.” Cantor Dubinsky knew that a refugee family could not afford to buy musical instruments, so when she was introduced to Miron’s mother, Alesia Kizil, she knew what to do with the money her congregation had so generously donated to her volunteer efforts in Warsaw.
With Cantor Dubinsky’s credit card in hand, Ms. Kizil took a bus to a music store, bought a full-size Yamaha portable piano keyboard, and carried it back on the bus. “I was floored when Alesia arrived at camp with the piano box on her back,” Cantor Dubinsky said. “Alesia’s pupils were like her own children. She was overwhelmed by the chance to teach all the kids.”
While Ms. Kizil’s language skills remain a barrier, her career teaching music in Warsaw and beyond has blossomed with the gift so freely given from benefactors on the other side of the world.
On a three-way call with Ms. Kizil in Warsaw and Cantor Dubinsky here in the States, Ms. Kizil said: “I didn’t know what I’d have to do here in Warsaw — but because Maria believed in me, I have a chance to live my professional life and be a musician again.”
Ms. Kizil learned to play piano from an older neighbor before she began formal training at the renowned National Kharkiv Music Lyceum. She began teaching students on drums, piano, guitar, and singing when she was just 16, engaging in competitions with other pupils. Before the war, she had a successful career as a pianist with the Kharkiv Theatre of Opera and Ballet. She is passionate about her work teaching children with emotional issues and intellectual disabilities and continues to teach both in person and on Zoom in Ukraine, Warsaw, and Berlin. Ms. Kizil is indebted to Cantor Dubinsky for giving her son, who has turned 7, his start. “I was 25 when I gave birth to Miron,” Ms. Kizil said. “I believe he’s been musically inspired since he was in utero.”
Using Zoom, Cantor Dubinsky continues to teach a number of students who’d begun musical instruction with her last summer. Maya’s experiences last summer provided the insight and perspective her mother had hoped it would. Warmed by Ms. Kizil’s friendship and her extraordinary talent, Cantor Dubinsky has arranged for the two to collaborate in New Jersey to create a program of peace. “I cannot wait to have her here,” Cantor Dubinsky said. “Art and music are the thread that connects people, eases barriers between cultures, and makes us feel safe.”
Cantor Dubinsky and Ms. Kizil will perform an Erev Shavuot concert of Ukrainian, Russian, and Jewish music on Thursday, May 25, at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge at 7:30 p.m.. The concert is open to the public and tickets are not required.
For more information, email Lisa at [email protected] or call her at (201) 489-2463.