Change is Inevitable; Growth is Optional
by Cantor Susan Caro
While I did not grow up with a female cantor at my congregation, I was fortunate spend many summers at our URJ camps, both as a camper and as a staff member and songleader. It is there that the spark of Jewish music was ignited for me, and where I found numerous female voices bringing new expression to the words and music of our tradition. They were cantorial students and rabbinic students, songleaders and teachers, all of whom encouraged me to find my own way in the Jewish world. My heart has always been touched through music and the arts.
My journey to the cantorate was not a direct one; the leap of faith from committed congregant to spiritual leader was paradoxically both daunting and yet felt like the exactly right next step in my life. I have often been inspired to move through moments of overwhelming transformation by remembering a bumper sticker I saw many years ago: “Change is inevitable; growth is optional.” Each step of change in my personal life is fraught with challenge and discomfort; and yet, if I am honest, each of those moments have shaped and guided my life in one way or another. I believe that the same holds true for most large changes in history.
There are many women who throughout the course of Jewish history took actions or spoke ideas which, little by little, added depth and seriousness to the voice of women in our tradition. It was Rabbi Sally Priesand, whose courageousness and tenacity raised the voices and visibility of Jewish women to a level of legitimacy not experienced before. Following her, Cantor Barbara Ostfeld was a pioneer in opening the consciousness of our congregants to the female voice as sacred spiritual leader. Their leading presence for women clergy has transformed Reform Judaism forever.
Fifteen years later, my cantorial class at HUC-JIR was enormous, and predominantly women (15 women, three men). Today, women and men have equally-valued voices in the cantorate. The American Conference of Cantors (ACC) honored Barbara and all of the pioneering women in the Cantorate last year, marking Barbara’s 36th year since becoming a cantor. It was extraordinary to hear and experience their stories. To be sure, there are still times of challenge for women in spiritual leadership, though I heard it a lot more in my earlier years: “Gee Cantor, I never met a Cantor without a beard… or a deep voice… that didn’t remind me of my grandfather.” Or, “It is only real prayer for me when I hear a man sing at services/my son’s Bar Mitzvah/my mother’s funeral.” More and more, the stories that I hear and the experiences that I have point only to the unique relationship developed between cantor and congregant, having to do with the interpersonal connections that are created regardless of gender.
Fortunately, the leadership in the ACC had the wisdom to accept the new women graduates of the HUC-JIR School of Sacred Music right away into membership, working to embrace and integrate them into the very fabric of the cantorate. I am proud to serve as the president of the ACC that recognized early on that a vibrant and relevant Judaism must respond to the challenges raised by the position of women in contemporary life, a hallmark of North American Reform Judaism.
Change is inevitable; growth is optional. It is our choice. We all read about the Israeli Reform Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, who recently was appointed to the town council of Mevasseret Zion. A Reform female Israeli rabbi – until recently, we only dared hope. And the walls of the town didn’t come crashing down with her appointment. When we are afraid of change, it destroys us. When we embrace it, we flourish. May all the voices of those who choose to serve our people in leadership be voices that bring hope, inspiration and peace to the Jewish people.
Cantor Susan Caro, president of the American Conference of Cantors, is a Hospice Chaplain with Kaiser Permanente. Her experience spans work with youth and adults in a variety of teaching settings, choral opportunities, performances throughout the United States, and creative liturgical and spiritual work.