While Cantor Audrey Abrams came to her profession later than most, she believes that it was inevitable – because of the numbers.
“My birthday is June 13 – 6/13, 613 mitzvot,” she said. “I should’ve known I should have been a Jewish professional.”
Abrams’s last day as the full-time cantor at Beth El Synagogue was June 30 where she was the first female clergy member. Abrams started in 1990 as Hazzan Sheini for the High Holy Days to Cantor Neil Newman. At the time she was living in Connecticut with her husband, David, and flew in each year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But being a cantor was Abrams’ second act. She started her career as a music therapist but was very involved in the Jewish world. She moved to the Twin Cities for her graduate studies and joined Beth El and the choir there, becoming a soloist. Newman started training her, but after she and her husband, David got married and moved back to Connecticut, she kept coming back for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
Moving back to the Twin Cities in 1995, Abrams was hired by Beth El to be a program director. She taught and led services some, and became a cantor in 2001. Instead of losing her to another synagogue, Beth El created the position of associate cantor for her in 2002. Newman retired in 2007 and she became the senior cantor then.
“[Newman] and I worked in a lot of different areas. He had carved out his niche in one way, and I carved out a different niche. I was very involved in the spiritual stuff, a lot of mind/body/sprit, where he maintained more traditional cantorial work”.
Abrams said that becoming the cantor upon Newman’s retirement was never promised to her.
“I loved Beth El. I grew up there and had been there forever. I had families that I felt so connected to,” she said. “I loved working with Neil Newman. We were just great together. And at that time, I had young kids and we weren’t leaving Minnesota. I didn’t have a strong need to find another synagogue.”
Since 2008 when Rabbi Avi Olitzky joined the clergy, Abrams and Rabbi Alexander Davis have made up a clergy team that – with the exception of sabbaticals – has been unchanged.
“Cantor Abrams is fairly unique in that her background far exceeds what a typical cantor brings,” Olitzky said. “It will be difficult to fill her shoes when you think of all the virtues, values, and skills she helped provide the community.”
Davis said that a national search is underway to replace Abrams’ slot on their clergy team.
“Cantor Abrams’ unique gifts go beyond her beautiful voice,” Davis said. “She has a special spirit she brings to everything she does from leading services to visiting the sick, from teaching musar to planning concerts. That spirit draws people in, opens their hearts, and touches them deeply.”
Abrams will be around in some capacity through June 2021. She has committed to seeing the current year B’nai Mitzvah class through to the bimah, and will be around to help with as many funerals as she can – plus with coronavirus, she doesn’t plan on traveling as much as she’d like. But even though she’ll have some visibility, she thought it was important the moment was marked – and it was last Shabbat.
“If I didn’t mark the moment, am I going to feel like I really left?” she said. “My clergy partners made it perfect for me. Cantor Newman spoke. I got to say something about marking the moment. We have other things planned for during the year; Rabbi Davis said it was going to be a Jewish goodbye. So thankful they recognized there was a shift.”
Also, because of coronavirus, Abrams has been able to ease into retirement. Instead of dinner at her desk several nights a week at Beth El between teaching a class and going to a meeting, she’s able to have dinner – even if it’s a quick one – with her husband, David.
“I say to him ‘This bodes well. I like being in the house with you!” she said with a laugh.
But she, like most other clergy members, have thrown themselves into the Zoom world.
“I learned to do things like have a singalong on Zoom or do meditation with a harpist on Zoom,” she said. “I feel like I’m walking away with a skill that I wouldn’t have if we didn’t have coronavirus.”
Abrams marked the start of retirement on July 1 on a Segway tour of Minneapolis with her husband, in part because she wanted to see what there is in the city.
“I want to explore what I haven’t seen here,” the 58-year-old Abrams said. “Why (retire) now? If not now when? My children don’t need my health insurance anymore. I want to travel. I want to explore. Quite honestly, I had friends who died at 59. My brother died at 60. It makes me stop and think. I want to do more than to say ‘I’m sorry I have to work.’ I love my work. Most aspects of it. But there’s more. I don’t want to say I didn’t do it.”
As she gets ready to enter her third act, Abrams mentioned that she’s been a cantor for 18 years, and the lead cantor for 13. Like her birthday – numbers that are significant to Judaism. And that significance and how the universe has lined up in that way isn’t lost on her.
“I totally believe in that stuff. And I thought a lot about that, too,” she said. “It is lining up and it is time.”