Jill Abramson grew up in St. Paul with an early love for music and theater.
“I was in a lot of plays and musicals at the St. Paul [Jewish Community Center],” she said. “That was a big part of my formation…and socially was a source of self confidence for me.”
That experience set the stage for a career as a cantor across the Midwest and East Coast – which now brings her to being the first female director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
Her installation will take place in a live streamed ceremony on Thursday, Oct. 12, at 9 a.m. Central Time.
“It’s an honor, it’s a privilege, I feel like I’m part of the effort to shatter the glass ceiling,” Abramson said. “Certainly there are tremendous female-identified colleagues that serve as faculty and instructors. But I’m the first to serve as the director, and I feel the weight of it.”
Abramson was interim director of the cantorial school from July 2022-23, and took on the role officially in July. The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music is the cantorial school of the Reform Movement, under the auspices of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.
“HUC-JIR is privileged to have Cantor Abramson continuing to lead our cantorial school, modeling and carrying out its vision,” said college President Andrew Rehfeld in a Feb. statement about Abramson. “Her creativity, commitment, and passion for the cantorate will strengthen our students’ education and have a reverberating impact on the broader Jewish community.”
Abramson’s appointment is also notable given the fact that Debbie Friedman, the celebrated songwriter and songleader who the cantorial school is named after, grew up in St. Paul as well.
Abramson remembers hearing Friedman’s records from an early age, listening to songs in the car, and making up dances in the living room to Friedman’s music.
“The nearness of her work and her creativity, it’s like a backdrop, scaffolding that just was always present in my life,” Abramson said. “I’m so proud to be from the same hometown…the Twin Cities in general are a source of great arts and creativity. There’s been tremendous Jewish creativity.”
That backdrop helped inspire Abramson, along with opportunities as a songleader at Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, the Reform Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) summer camp in Wisconsin, and the Northern Region of the Reform youth group NFTY. Before her, Debbie Friedman was also a songleader at OSRUI.
“I was also just very at home in synagogue life and found a lot of positive friendships through youth group and synagogue life,” Abramson said.
Abramson was also influenced by her vocal teacher in St. Paul, Sarah Lipsett-Allison, who later became a cantor and served the Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka. She also fondly remembers being in the children’s chorus at the Minnesota Opera.
“Even though it wasn’t a Jewish experience, it introduced me to the importance of rehearsal, and the rigor of practice, but also just the power of the human voice,” she said. “That instilled something in me that I think contributed to where I ended up.”
For others interested in cantorial school and participating in Jewish music, Abramson said that being a cantor is “a way to reach people and to use the power of your voice to bring tremendous meaning to people’s lives at key moments of their lives.”
She encouraged “people who are interested in harnessing their skills as a vocalist and musician, to think about taking those skills and helping people find spiritual meaning.”