Cantor’s Convention Showcases Twin Cities Community, New Music, Love For Israel

Midday on May 22, in a convention hall inside the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, a man in a suit, kippah, and wearing a folk singer’s combo of guitar and harmonica tested the sound system.

The microphone worked fine for his voice, but the guitar was too quiet through the speakers. As the man kept strumming, an audio engineer at the back of the hall combed through his gear.

Suddenly, the guitar was loud – and the audience of roughly 150 cantors from Australia, Israel, and North America cheered. No one knows better the relief of overcoming technical difficulties than this crowd, gathered in the Twin Cities last week for the annual multi-day convention of the Cantor’s Assembly, the professional network of Conservative Jewish cantors.

“You think ‘convention’ and you think it’s going to be dry, boring seminars, with like, bad cookies and lemonade afterwards,” said Hazzan Joanna Dulkin of the Adath Jeshurun Congregation, who is currently serving as the CA’s president. “And in fact, it is not [that] at all – [the CA convention is] colorful and it’s powerful.”

The convention was sponsored in part by Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the Minnesota JCC, with Dulkin making it her mission to integrate the gathering into the broader Twin Cities community. She invited her colleagues, whether or not they are affiliated with the CA, to come to the convention, and featured local musicians and composers.

One session was called “Don’t mess with the Midwest: Lesser (and better known) music by Midwestern Jewish composers,” adding to the open Minnesota and Midwestern pride among local cantors.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I serve a congregation in New York, Long Island,’” said Bet Shalom’s Cantor Tamar Havilio. “I’m like, Minnesota is so much better than Long Island – you can quote me on that…We in the Twin Cities have great talent and wonderful people that lead our congregations.”

At a session called “The sacred within the secular: Jewish pop and Broadway,” cantors performed favorite songs, often with a focus on Israel: Cantor Heather Seid, soon to be at Adath, sang a mashup of West Side Story’s “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)” and “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem, inviting the hall of cantors to join in on the anthem, resulting in a cascade of – to no one’s surprise – excellent harmonies.

The man with the loud guitar, Cantor Dan Singer of New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, launched into a wide-ranging mashup of Bob Dylan songs like “Forever Young” and “Neighborhood Bully” with prayers like “Yevarechecha,” traditionally the blessing parents give to their children on Shabbat.

“Neighborhood Bully” is widely considered to be about Jews and Israel, with lyrics like “The neighborhood bully been driven out of every land/He’s wandered the earth an exiled man/Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn/He’s always on trial for just being born.”

Israel was front and center at the convention, as the Jewish world continues to grapple with the brutal Oct. 7 massacre in southern Israel by Hamas, the Gaza-based terrorist organization, in which Hamas killed roughly 1,200 people, took nearly 250 hostages, and sparked a devastating war in Gaza.

At the CA convention, at least one session was devoted to Israeli music, which featured some songs written since Oct. 7, and many that resonate in the wartime environment Israel is now in. One song in particular, titled “Like the superheroes,” resonated with Havilio, and she plans to bring it to Bet Shalom.

“It’s about the reserve soldiers who basically take off their daily clothes and put on a uniform underneath,” evoking images of Superman, said Havilio, who lived in Israel for many years before coming to Minnesota in 2020. “I was so moved by that because my husband was a reserve soldier for many years, and he served in the Second Lebanon War. So I know that feeling.”

Like many Jewish professional gatherings since Oct. 7, the convention was a place for everyone to pause and take a breath amid the mad rush of Jewish communal life in difficult times.

“Even though we’re after Oct. 7, I haven’t been able to process it,” said Havilio. “This convention is giving space to all of us as cantors to process what we’re going through – we’re not done, yet, we’re still in it.”

But a defining feature of the convention was a sense of communal energy and joy, with a palpable relief at being in person – left over from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – for everything from formal networking to schmoozing and spontaneous singing sessions.

“I will never take for granted again these opportunities to gather in person,” said Dulkin. “It has been very healing to be here with everybody.”

It will take some time for the new ideas, connections, and music made at the convention to be brought back to local congregations in the Twin Cities. For Cantor Josh Fineblum of Temple of Aaron, there’s a lot to sift through.

“I need to sit down afterwards and look at my notes that I’ve been taking…and see what I can bring back, and how I can bring it back, to our community,” he said.

“Collegiality is really important at these things, because you learn so much during meals when you’re sitting with somebody,” Fineblum said. “Is there an artist you can bring in to help your own community, or one little piece [of music] that they know that we can bring back and make meaningful for us, too.”

Cantors experience new music, connections

A major highlight of the CA convention was a May 21 concert at Adath titled “Sh’ma Koleinu: An Evening of 200 Voices,” the world premiere for new music sung by 200 cantors in front of an audience that included the music’s composers.

The concert, also serving as Adath’s annual benefit, will be showcased in a documentary film (release date TBD), and brought out retired Twin Cities figures like Cantor Audrey Abrams, formerly of Beth El Synagogue, and Cantor Scott Buckner, formerly of Adath.

“It was a truly once-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” said Dulkin. “When’s the next time you’re going to get hundreds of cantors onto the bimah of Adath? To have an evening of world premiere compositions, that would have been Dayenu (enough).”

Dulkin experienced both sides of the concert, performing in it while also seeing her own original composition sung at the end of the night. After Dulkin’s piece, which was designed to get both the cantors onstage and the audience offstage to sing together, the cantors spontaneously broke in a rendition of “Am Israel Chai,” the popular song of Jewish and Israeli pride.

“It just ended on such a spontaneously positive and hopeful note, and that’s really what makes me proudest, I think, is the idea that cantors bring the energy of hope and inspiration and creativity, even in this very difficult moment, right now that we’re having in Jewish history,” Dulkin said.

The cantors brought that same kind of energy to the end of the May 20 Noa Tishby event at Beth El, where they sang “Hatikvah” after the Q and A with the Israeli activist.

“We need to bring beauty and we need to bring inspiration even in these times, and we can’t let our spirits be crushed so completely that we can’t express ourselves creatively and we can’t touch the soul,” she said. “I think we were able to do that, and inspire this community, and hopefully lift people up.”

Throughout these experiences, the cantors have been meeting old friends, teachers, and students, while also forging new connections. Cantor Max Silverstone graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary just a few days before coming to Minnesota for the CA convention, and enjoyed meeting online connections in-person for the first time.

“It’s been a little fun, because there are people here who know who I am,” Silverstone said. “But I haven’t met them – they heard about me because they watched my senior recital back in January, or they saw the list of graduating students and they watched the ordination online. So just been really cool to actually make these physical connections with people.”

Silverstone’s first post-graduation job will be as cantor of a synagogue in Maryland, and he knows he still has a lot to learn about the ins-and-outs of daily life as a cantor.

“There’s some parts of the job that are just still mysterious to me, and will remain mysterious until I really start doing the job,” he said. Silverstone is going to follow up with the cantors he met to “hear how they approach B’nai Mitzvah or funerals or finding new music, so that I can take their best practices and and apply it in my own work.”

Silverstone is inspired by the different interests and ways of performing that cantors have – some singing while playing a mandolin, some singing in a more operatic style, and others with more camp songleader-y styles, among a myriad of approaches.

“There’s so many ways of being a cantor, of leading services, of performing music, and I think that the showcases and the concerts here have really shown that breadth of music within the cantorial world,” he said.

“And also, we’ve performed plenty of music that doesn’t even come from the cantorial world just because we’re all singers, we’re all performers, and we like other music, too.”

Perhaps most importantly, it was Silverstone’s first time in Minnesota, and he was impressed.

“I’m a big urban planning guy – people at my synagogue actually call me the Urban Planning cantor,” he said. “This downtown is absolutely amazing. It has the light rail, which like, there’s great land use around the light rail here with dense buildings and stores and shopping.”

At one point, Silverstone rented a Lime scooter and rode around the area. He was left with an impression vastly different from the view of what often feels like an online army of Minneapolis haters insisting downtown is dead.

“I just went around the neighborhood, wherever the streets took me in it felt incredibly safe because of all the protected bike lanes,” he said. “I’ve really loved it. Here in Minneapolis, it’s kind of an urbanist utopia in this part of town.”