A Life of Jewish Music
by Cantor Rosalie Boxt
Four hundred people are joined together, eyes shining, faces bright, voices raised in a glorious chorus. I am sitting in a small concert hall, eyes darting between the sheet music in my open binder and the brilliant conductor on stage. It is my first time attending the North American Jewish Choral Festival, where I am a workshop presenter and participant. The music is choral music, challenging, moving, energizing, rhythmic, and lyrical. Sitting to my left is Rabbi Dan Freelander, who is a chairperson of the festival every year, and to my right is Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller. To her right is HUC-JIR faculty member Merri Arian, and next to Dan is Cantor Richard Cohn.
What is the significance of this event and of these people? They are my musical life – a history of my experience as an educator and cantor, with music at my core. It all began, as many of these stories do, at a URJ camp. Though I sang in my junior choir in two congregations as a child, I found not only my Jewish voice, but my Jewish neshamah, my soul, at the Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Zionsville, IN. It was at GUCI that I first learned of Rabbi Hillel’s reminder about responsibility through Debbie Friedman’s (z’l) melody of ”Im Ein Ani Li Mi Li.”. Or perhaps it was from Lee Friedman, or Leslie Keeps, or Dan Nichols, or Andy Vogel, or Ken Chasen. I screamed ”Shir Baboker” and ”Dodi Li” and “This Land is Our Land” and ”Lo Yarei’u” in GUCI’s chadar ochel until my voice was raw. Lo Yarei’u, sung in part by Dan Freelander – now the friend on my left.
As the years flew by at camp, I became a songleader – both at GUCI and later at the URJ Kutz Camp, and occasionally for the URJ Board and at leadership retreats. After college, I worked at Kutz, with NFTY in Israel, and as the national songleader; it was through this work that, in the summer of 1995, I met two women, Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller (now the friend on my right) and Cantor Ellen Dreskin, two women who inspired me and helped me listen to the song of my soul, which was calling for me to become a cantor – and who became dear friends, colleagues, and teachers.
What of the other two friends? Though Merri Arian and her husband Ramie had left Kutz by the time I arrived, her time as a songleader at Kutz was legendary to me. I had the honor and privilege of studying with her as a teacher of HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music’s cantorial program in NYC years later, and she has been my guide through my years at Hava Nashira, the URJ’s annual songleading and music workshop. She, too, has become a sweet friend. And Richard, sitting on the other side of Dan, is a mentor and leader of the American Conference of Cantors, an inspiration since my investiture; I strive to reach his level of grace, wisdom, integrity, and intellect.
To become a member of the ACC, to become a leader and teacher within our community, to encourage us to dig deeper, work harder, want more from our worship, from our community and from each other – all of this came from those summers at camp, watching my songleaders running up and down that long stretch between tables, knowing that I was a part of something large, important, and transformative. We sang what we knew to be true, or maybe really hoped to be true: that Jerusalem would soon see peace; that we had an obligation to look after our neighbor; that our country and our roots were deep – from Sinai through Plymouth Rock; and that when we sang, anything was possible, and we were all one. I have taken those feelings with me through camp, college, cantorial school, my congregation, back to Kutz and the ACC every summer, and now to this beautiful Choral Festival. Here, the music is just as rich and meaningful, and those who share my roots are sharing in this rich musical tradition with me.
I have never felt so clearly that Jewish music has the power to transform, and is all the same. The music itself doesn’t matter as much as where the music takes us. Wherever you’re making your music this summer – camp, synagogue, the ballgame – make it count. Make it mean something. My teachers and songleaders, cantors and rabbis and teachers, all taught me, through their singing and leading, that music matters.
My oldest daughter, Tahlia, is at sleep-away camp at URJ Camp Harlam this week for the first time. I hope that, while she is there, my friend Jill Cogan and her fellow songleaders at Harlam will teach my child that singing together matters. Indeed, it can change worlds.
Cantor Rosalie Boxt is the cantor at Temple Emanuel of Maryland in Kensington, MD. A longtime songleader for NFTY, Goldman Union Camp, and Kutz Camp, she now serves as vice-chair of the Kutz committee on education and outreach.