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Former Beth El chorister to lead cantors’ school
June 1st, 2011
Milwaukee-native Cantor Nancy Abramson, 57, will become director of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York on July 1.
Cantor Nancy Abramson
Yes, that is the same Nancy Abramson who as a young girl sang Friday night solos with Milwaukee’s Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue Choir.
She has worked 31 years as a pulpit cantor. Now, as Abramson explained in a telephone interview, the school directorship “came up in just the right time for me to say that it was so exciting to take my years of experience and training and apply them to educating the next generation of cantors and leave a legacy in a broader sense.”
Moreover, the Conservative movement chose her to oversee major alterations in the training of its cantorial students.
She will be implementing recommendations of the Task Force on the Future of the H. L. Miller School, which earlier his year recommended far-reaching changes in the education of cantors.
The standing-on-one-foot goal: to “make [the students] cantors for the 21st century,” Abramson said. That means “to be able to connect the past to more modern music, to involve more people in participation at worship, to train b’nai mitzvah students, to work with adults, to work with children.”
“I’ve already met with the [cantorial] students,” she said. “I think I surprised them a little bit. One of my goals will be to make the school a real professional school... within an academic institution.
“I will expect more of them in terms of acting like professionals while they’re students — that they need to approach their education with a seriousness that reflects their future leadership position in the Jewish community. That they need to come to minyan [daily services], to daven [pray], to have internships.”
Entrée to souls
Abramson also will encourage cantors “to get additional skill sets. We want to train cantor-educators” in collaboration with JTS’s Davidson School of Education.
That would allow a smaller congregation to hire a cantor who is also capable of directing the religious school, a role Abramson filled early in her career.
The congregational landscape has changed significantly during her career. “While people in the Conservative movement are looking to be engaged spiritually and intellectually, they come to us with less strong Judaic knowledge, which is a challenge when our service is mostly Hebrew,” she said.
The cantor’s role is crucial, Abramson said, because “music is the entrée to people’s souls. Cantors must be sure that the melodies they sing are correct for the prayer mode,” while allowing congregants “either to sing along or feel that it’s music they can relate to.”
“That is tricky in the Conservative movement,” she continued. “We are the ones who really are the keepers of the nusach,” the canon of service- and holiday-specific melodies that emanated from the “classical eastern European cantors from the 19th century.”
Abramson acknowledged that “it is a balancing act to preserve the integrity of a service and also to make it varied and interesting enough that people will want to be there and participate. No two congregants want the same thing. Everyone thinks the tune they grew up with is the traditional tune.”
The H. L. Miller School offers a five-year program to train cantors. Abramson said she has been asked to enlarge the student body from the current 22 enrollees as she seeks to transform the school into a leading light in the movement.
Abramson will be leaving New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue after 14 years. Over the previous 17 years, she served two other New York synagogues.
She earned bachelor’s degrees in music and Jewish history at the dual degree program of JTS and Columbia University. She received her cantorial education at JTS and earned a master’s degree in music education from Columbia. She’s senior vice president of the Cantors Assembly, the first woman to hold office in the association of Conservative cantors.
Her Jewish musical career began almost 50 years ago in the choir at the old Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue on Milwaukee’s west side. “I loved going to Hebrew school and going to that synagogue,” she said.
“I started singing in the choir as an eight-year-old,” she recalled. Liturgical composer Max Janowski of Chicago worked extensively with the choir. He and choir director Molly Slutsky “nurtured me,” Abramson said. “To this day I try to include a Janowski piece in any program that I do.”
She also was active in USY, the Conservative movement’s youth group, and a repeat participant at the movement’s Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. She is the daughter of Flora Abramson of Milwaukee and a graduate of John Marshall High School.
Abramson acknowledged that she will miss singing on the pulpit, though as she settles into her job she hopes to lead High Holiday services and substitute for colleagues.
And she still marvels how a pulpit cantor “is able take the congregation’s prayer and move that towards God.”
Andrew Muchin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.