Just this past spring, Cantor Nancy Abramson, a Milwaukee native, retired from her role as director of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York.
On May 1, The Jewish Theological Seminary held a ceremony in her honor. At the beginning of her speech, Abramson showed the audience a retirement gift she received: a necklace that shows a woman gracefully diving off a cliff.
“The gift made me realize I have had a career of metaphorically jumping off cliffs, mostly with grace and success,” Abramson said.
Indeed, venturing into unknown territory is a prevailing theme of Abramson’s professional life. A passion for music, formed during her upbringing in Milwaukee, led her to serve on the bimah at a time when women in the Conservative movement were not trained to become cantors.
At age 8, she began singing in Milwaukee’s old Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue’s choir, sparking her love of music. She studied under Max Janowski, a world-renowned Jewish composer, and Molly Slutsky, the choir director.
Abramson said, “I always felt that [singing in Beth El’s choir] was not just a safe space, but a nurturing and exciting place to be.”
Congregation Beth El also gave Abramson a partial scholarship to attend Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, which “helped build a fundamental piece of my Jewish identity.”
There, she met many people with connections to The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. When the time came to attend college, she chose not to go to University of Wisconsin – Madison, and instead go to cantorial school with her camp friends.
However, Abramson never expected to become a cantor herself. When she attended JTS cantorial school, all the students training to be cantors were men, and women instead received a degree in sacred music.
Her first job after college was at a conservative synagogue in Westchester, New York, where she taught music, Hebrew school, and read Torah: everything except lead services.
A rabbi friend said to Abramson, “You’re already doing everything in the synagogue, why not consider becoming a cantor?” Abramson took their advice and reached out to a cantor from the Reform movement. After spending the day shadowing her, the idea of being a cantor herself became much more real.
When a cantor position opened at her current synagogue, she applied. This was in 1985, when it was so new to have a woman on the bimah that her interviewers initially couldn’t envision it. Abramson recalls how: “In my interview, someone asked what I would wear on the bimah. I said: ‘Well, the rabbi wears a suit, I’ll wear a suit — but my suit will have a skirt because women didn’t wear pants in an official capacity then.’”
After serving as cantor at that same synagogue for five years, she went on to have careers at other New York synagogues, both Reconstructionist and Conservative, before landing in her role at The Jewish Theological Seminary in the H.L. Miller Cantorial school. Throughout her 12-year tenure, she trained future cantors in prayer, nusah (the sacred music of prayer) and religious leadership.
She made two primary curriculum changes during her role. Abramson said, “When I first came to JTS, the cantorial and rabbinical students were on separate tracks and barely knew one another. Now, we have seminars in which clergy students engage in critical thinking and problem solving for the benefit of all.”
Another change Abramson is equally proud of is requiring cantorial students to take clinical pastoral education training alongside rabbinical students. Every week, students spend two days in the classroom and three days at various sites, such as hospitals, senior centers or prisons.
According to Abramson, “Leading the H.L. Miller Cantorial school has afforded me the opportunity to channel my life’s work in the synagogue into a vision for educating cantors here at JTS.”
She’s acted as a role model for many cantors, demonstrated by the number of attendees who flew in from all over the country to attend her recent retirement ceremony. “People flew in from places like Canada, Chicago, Kansas City, Florida. It was really so gratifying. I felt honored. I felt loved. I felt understood.”
For herself, Cantor Abramson says the role model for being a strong professional woman has always been her mom, Flora Abramson, who ran many businesses and still lives in Milwaukee.