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Times have and haven’t changed for woman cantor in Israel
December 3rd, 2004
Jerusalem - Thirteen years ago this coming June 2005, I traveled to Israel for the first time. I remember it as though it were yesterday and, at the same time, it seems a lifetime ago.
I arrived at Newark International Airport for my El Al flight to Israel, where I was to begin my studies to be a cantor at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
I walked up to the airline security with sweaty palms and eager legs. The very handsome security person shot off his list of questions: Where are you going in Israel? What will you be studying?, etc.
I answered without a moment’s hesitation, “I’m going to become a hazzanit — a cantor!”
The man looked at me for a moment as though I were crazy and then said, “Oh, you’re going to study Hebrew.”
I answered that, yes, I would be studying Hebrew, but that I was coming to Israel to begin the process of becoming a hazzanit. Another security person overheard our conversation and yelled to the other: “Hee Reformit! — She’s Reform!” He looked at me again, shook his head, and then allowed me to “begin” my journey.
That year of study was full of great joy in discovering my previously unexplainable deep connection with Israel and also unexpected conflict with always being “other” in our homeland.
I remember having to explain to an Israeli in the library of HUC why I wanted to be a cantor and not “Madonna.” He could not understand the sacredness of his own Judaism; If I was a singer, why not sell myself as another singer? Why be stuck in a synagogue?
Then in another instance I had to tell a yeshivah boy from Brooklyn why it was his responsibility and not mine if he had impure thoughts if he heard me sing prayers. He thought all this without even hearing my voice! It was an incredible year of learning.
Two years ago, in September 2002, I arrived at Newark International Airport, again for my El Al flight to Israel. Only this time I was heading to Jerusalem to begin teaching in the same program where I began my cantorial studies almost 11 years earlier.
I stood and waited again at the security line and they started asking me similar questions. This time when I said that I was a cantor and that I was going to be teaching cantorial studies in both the American and Israeli programs at HUC-Jerusalem, I was pleasantly surprised by their response: “This is amazing! My sister had a bat mitzvah with a Reform synagogue and I love that there are women who are cantors!”
In two worlds
Today this is the only type of response I receive at the airport and many other places in Israel. Times have changed. And yet, they have not.
Like Reform rabbis in Israel, I cannot make “official” life-cycle events. The Orthodox rabbinate still has a monopoly on all Jewish ritual practices.
Also a hazzan is most often not a full-time job in Israel. There are basically two fully-invested Reform cantors in Israel — myself and Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, with whom I teach at HUC.
There are also very few full-time positions for Reform cantors in Israel. This is primarily a result of the Israeli Progressive Movement’s desire to first ordain rabbis to create an existing movement. Just now they are beginning to form a cantorial program for Israelis.
For myself it is both wonderful and frustrating to be a Reform cantor in Israel. It’s truly wonderful, because every day, I feel meaning in the steps that I take. I understand that I am creating something new here in a real pioneering sense.
It’s also frustrating because nothing is like being a Reform cantor in North America. There is a sense of respect within the American Jewish community for the role of Reform cantor. That has not yet reached Israel.
I serve a congregation in the United States for the High Holy Days just so that I can feel like an American Reform cantor. Thus, I live in both worlds — the established and the newborn.
That dichotomy defines me too. I am an established American and a newborn Israeli. I teach in both the American Year in Israel program and in the Israeli Rabbinic Program. And I am fulfilled by both in different ways.
With my North American students, I feel a sense of pride in teaching them to help others lead meaningful Jewish lives outside of the State of Israel.
With my Israeli students, I feel a sense of mission to enable them to help people live meaningful NEW Jewish lives within the State of Israel.
As we approach Chanukah and focus on miracles, I’m aware that being a woman cantor in Israel is a great miracle.
Whether we say, “A great miracle happened there” or “A great miracle happened here,” the miracle of Chanukah belongs to us all and touches Jews everywhere. May your holiday be filled with a new enlightenment and with eyes wide enough to see the miracles that happen everyday.
Cantor Heather Tamar Havilio is a former cantor at Congregation Sinai.