“My grandfather might have been a cantor, were it not for the Holocaust. His Jewish and musical journey continues in my life as a cantor.”
Hebrew College first-year COSEL student David Wolff recounts this story about his beloved grandfather, now 101 years old and proud to see his grandson pursuing the cantorate. According to David, the full story goes like this:
“My family has a deep connection to Judaism, specifically to Israel. My grandfather, Gerard Daniel grew up singing solos at his synagogue in Hamburg, Germany. The Nazis cut his musical and religious aspirations short. In 1936, he fled to Tel Aviv, where he met his wife (my grandmother) on the beach. My mother, Miriam Daniel, was born in then-Palestine in 1947. Shortly thereafter Gerard and Ruth Daniel emigrated to New York with their children. After a lifetime in business, my grandparents felt that they owed something to Eretz Yisrael. In 1990 they built Beit Daniel, the largest reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. In 2005, they helped to create Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, an educational, religious and community center in Yafo that works to promote a pluralistic and just society in Israel.”
Though he grew up in a typical reform family, Judaism and Israel were central to David and his family. David grew up with the traditional concept of tikkun olam, improving the world. After graduating from Amherst College, David spent five years teaching elementary music in mostly low-income Latino schools in Montgomery County, MD. A self-proclaimed “Jewish tenor,” he pursued a musical career in his off hours—singing in a local Washington, D.C. synagogue, and performing professionally in concerts, choirs and operas. He even landing the plumb coloratura tenor role of Ernesto in the opera Don Pasquale with a small local opera company, earning some rave reviews.
David realized that professional singing lacked the stability and meaning that he sought. “To be an opera singer you need to carry a big ego. It’s performative and deeply competitive. You need the desire to win, the desire to be the best. I love music deeply, and it is central to who I am, but I don’t have an overwhelming ‘I’m the best’ thing inside of me.”
David realized that he wanted to use music to help people. “When I was teaching in Montgomery County, and singing in shul for the high holidays, I used music to help people. I learned that I can do something beautiful that people can connect to—so I can help them have meaningful, spiritual and holy experiences.”
That’s when he started to think about becoming a cantor. But he had doubts, asking himself: “How will I handle the cost of school? Is it too late to go back to school? Given my upbringing, am I “Jewish enough” to be cantor?
But after much research, soul searching, and visits to cantorial schools, he chose the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College’s three-year accelerated cantor-educator (COSEL) program.
Finding a Home
As David reaches the home stretch of his first semester in the COSEL program, he has no regrets. “Hebrew College is a special place. I’m immersed in a community of rabbis and cantors where people talk openly about their emotions, and strive to become better people. It is a pluralistic place, and not in name only, but lived every day. There is a rigor to our pluralism; we learn how to become better listeners and how to be more tolerant and respectful of others. It isn’t simple—it is examined, studied and talked about.”
In addition to being welcomed by the community, David discovered a new appreciation for traditional text study in Hebrew College’s beit midrash. In fact, he loves it. “I realized quickly that it takes an intellectual rigor and intelligence to study the texts. There’s a depth in our study of ancient Jewish texts that goes beyond my lawyer-friends’ logical textual analysis. In the beit midrash, we ask ‘what does this text mean about us, and how can it make us better?’ We study through both a spiritual and a logical lens, and that is special.”
In between text study, David learns nusach (traditional prayer chant) and cantillation, takes voice lessons, and immerses himself in Hebrew College’s pluralistic community. He looks forward to a cantorial career of teaching and singing, spreading joy and spirituality through music.
And David’s grandfather? David says, “He’s overjoyed!”