Hinda Tzvia Eisen Labovitz ’14
I always knew that I wanted to do something that combined Judaism, education and music. I had thought that I would have to choose only two of my passions for my vocation and pursue the third as an avocation, but in the cantorate I found that I could do all three. Becoming a cantor was also a natural extension of the things that I was already doing — working as a ritual director of a synagogue, serving as an assistant cantor, singing in the Zamir Chorale, conducting and teaching Jewish studies.
In a word: everything. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true that all of the knowledge we gained in cantorial school will be used just in the first year of pulpit work: from nusach(traditional Jewish liturgical chant) to congregational melodies, from communication skills to professional development. And it isn’t just five years in classrooms; even outside curricular education we were constantly learning from our mentors, our teachers and our colleagues, and sometimes those lessons were just as or more important than the concrete material we had learned.
Your personal life is part of your professional life when you’re a cantor. The dignity, compassion and kindness with which we act as cantors are essential characteristics of who we are personally, as well.
Our tradition (in Pirké Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] 4:1) encourages us to learn from each and every person and, by extension, from each and every experience. I’ll admit, I struggle at times with finding inspiration in music or ritual that is outside my comfort zone, and I am learning to draw inspiration even from and through my discomfort. When I lead services or interact with people in my capacity as clergy, I try to keep my ears and mind open to all of the stimuli around me — voices, emotions (my own and those of my congregants), current events, even furniture and lighting. Often the answers to your unasked questions are already around you, waiting to be let in.
Before and during my first years in cantorial school, I served as ritual director of Temple Emanu-El in Providence, R.I., during which I was privileged to work with the School of Jewish Music’s dean, Cantor Brian Mayer. Effectively serving as his cantorial apprentice, I sat to the right of his shtender(lectern) every Shabbat and every holiday, and came to deeply appreciate the intentionality and skill with which he approached his davening. By paying close attention to every choice he made, I learned that great spirituality emerges when the cantor, while leading services, not only focuses on his (or her) communion with God, but also on his relationships with individuals in the community.
What parts of the Hebrew College SJM experience were most valuable in preparing you for your new pulpit?
The entire experience was valuable. The ways that we were prepared and tested before being sent out into the world was so thorough that there can be no question that we’re prepared when we leave. It was particularly important that we study in a pluralistic environment. We entered from such different places, and then as we learned from each other we developed a real appreciation and respect for our clergy partners across denominations.
The master’s study and the ordination study dovetailed so nicely that they can’t be separated. The research and intellectual investigations led directly into the professional skills, and vice versa. The programs really intertwined.
What advantages of being in Boston, whether in the Jewish community or the Boston music scene, did you value?
I came to Boston as an undergraduate, and spent almost 10 years there. There were so many opportunities to participate in synagogue life, opportunities to “do” and not just watch. Public transportation was a great bonus, as it opened up many communities to explore. Both religiously and musically, there were many people willing to cultivate new talent. The Boston music scene is incredible, with the Pops, the symphony and the Zamir Chorale, which is acclaimed as the premier Jewish choir in America. Additionally, all of our faculty are active participants in both the local music scene and the synagogue scene, which creates opportunities for students to be exposed to many ways of living and creating music.
Keep yourself open. Allow each and every moment, even the unexpected or the difficult moments, to be learning experiences; you never know what you’ll draw upon later. Further, be careful of assimilating the biases around you, even from people you hold in high regard. Listen, acknowledge and then make sure you are making your own informed decisions about what is ultimately worth your respect or attention.