I am blessed to be a Rabbi and a Cantor on the path God has chosen for me, as I reflect back to my earliest memory of as a 4-year-old, leading my Sunday school class in the blessings over the grape juice and challah. I enjoyed two years of Sunday school until my mother, as a single parent, could not afford the Temple membership dues required to continue my religious school education. For years to come, I would watch my friends who had the privilege of attending religious school hoping one day to join them.
While studying voice at Indiana University in Bloomington, a “Big 10” school of 36,000 students, I “found” Judaism again when, that fall, as the High Holy Days approached, I decided to attend Shabbat services at Hillel. I had no expectations. As I opened the door, welcoming gestures greeted me in as if I was expected and the aroma of Shabbat dinner filled the air. I felt at home and formed many long-lasting relationships that night as I spent the most wonderful evening, in prayer and song in celebration of Shabbat. That night would spark the re-kindling of my Jewish education which proved more significant than I could have ever imagined.
As a result, I became very active in Hillel and attended services regularly. Although I learned the prayers and songs, I harbored a deep secret: I didn’t know how to read Hebrew so, that summer, at 20 years old, I decided to learn. My Bat Mitzvah took place in October secretly during my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah service. It was then I first dreamed of becoming a member of the clergy.
During my senior year of college, I went on Birthright and returned from Israel with an even stronger connection with my Jewish identity. I began to research my family connection to Hazzan Gershon Sirota. Among the great and renowned Hazzanim of his day, my 3 times great uncle was dubbed the “Jewish Caruso.” It was on one of his earliest trips to Manhattan that Gershon traveled with two of his nephews, Abraham and my great-grandfather William Sirota (Siroty), both of whom fell in love with America and decided to stay. Gershon, who was granted personal asylum during World War II, chose to live out his days confined in the Warsaw Ghetto where he died with his family in 1943, during the uprising. It was through learning about his life that my passion for singing, my love of Judaism and God, and a legacy to honor and continue the life’s work of Gershon Sirota had all come together. My dream to become a Cantor had blossomed into a calling.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Music Degree with Highest Honors from the University of California in Santa Barbara. Through the encouragement of one of my mentors, Cantor Evan Kent, I enrolled in the Mechina pre-Cantorial program at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. I studied in his Mechina class for three years and his guidance led me to apply to the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
The Year-in-Israel program was a beautiful start to my beginning at HUC-JIR. I had the opportunity to travel around Israel, learning about its ancient history, social cultures, and present day politics. The Hebrew immersion, bible study and community involvement both within the walls of the college and throughout the Jewish State created a meaningful once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I attended services at Orthodox, Sephardic, Reform and Conservative synagogues. I walked the same streets of Jerusalem as King David, the prophet Isaiah, and Golda Meir, and was able to experience this sacred land as a scholar first hand. I will never forget the setting sun over the old city as I led Havdalah after the N’eilah service in the Blaustein synagogue.
During my 5 years of education as a Cantorial student at the New York campus, I studied with world-renowned Rabbis, Cantors and Educators, who have now become incredible colleagues. I collaborated for services with many Rabbis and rabbinical students, which afforded me the opportunity to create individualized and cohesive worship experiences by preparing musical programs to complement their many different styles. My days in Cantorial school were deeply spiritual, inspiring and educational through a creative musical connection.
I started my career as a Cantor in a small congregation with a sole Rabbi. It was there I realized that singing was only a portion of my job. I led my congregants in song for Shabbat and the High Holy Days’, helped students become B’nai Mitzvah, taught trope and prayers, encouraged children to sing praises to God with ruach and ushered in Jews-by-choice into our covenant. Additionally, I was responsible for Saturday morning Torah study, weekly visits to ailing congregants in hospice, nursing homes, and hospitals, officiating at funerals and weddings, and delivering sermons. When the Rabbi went on vacation or took time off I was the sole clergy. During one of these times, a child of a congregant died; a tragic and difficult time for the most seasoned professional. However, I felt so inadequately trained for this as a Cantor; I decided I wanted to go back to HUC-JIR and continue my studies to become a Rabbi. With the role of clergy forever evolving to fill the needs of our congregations in this depressed financial climate, there are so many congregations who could barely afford a Rabbi, let alone a Rabbi and a Cantor. My goal is to serve a congregation and preserve Judaism at this fundamental level. I can do this best as a Rabbi and a Cantor.
Some of my most profound moments are from chanting the melodies of the High Holy Days’ services and, yet, I also cherished the quiet moments with congregants. My presence at their times of change, sometimes lasting only a few minutes, helped them feel understood when experiencing their grief, their fears or their loneliness. Also remarkable is the sharing of their joys: the birth of a child, a b’nai mitzvah, or a wedding anniversary. Those connections on this very personal level are deeply moving to me and, in my most introspective moments of reflection, I realized I am meant to serve a congregation in a myriad of ways, as a Hazzan and a Morah; a Cantor and a Rabbi.
My most recent 5 additional years of study have been spent at the Los Angeles campus as a rabbinical student where I have had the opportunity to study Jewish texts, history, thought, language and literature with brilliant Talmud scholars and Rabbis. I have experienced great personal, spiritual and religious growth through worship experiences, discussion of core issues in Jewish thought and life, and spiritual mentoring. I have grown through professional development in fieldwork as a Chaplain at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, providing comfort to patients of all faiths, and serving Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, CA as a Rabbinic Intern. Additionally, I am honored to have served as an Associate Professor of Synagogue Music and as a T’filah Advisor at HUC-JIR .
Most importantly, while attending Rabbinical school, I have been working as an auxiliary Cantor at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, leading some Shabbat services and as an ongoing B’nai Mitzvah tutor and Cantor officiating at my students’ B’nai Mitzvah services. I have also served as a High Holy Day Cantor for several synagogues in need around the country.
In closing, I am proud to finally become a Reform Rabbi as well as a Cantor. I arrive at this point in my career grateful and humbled by the training, wisdom and the courage I have experienced in order to come this far. I look forward to sharing my gifts as I embrace my congregation in spiritual leadership.