North American cantors share their calling on trip to Poland, Israel

Trip focused on Polish gentiles who saved Jews.

cantors poland 248 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
cantors poland 248 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
Outlining the unique link between Poland the Jewish people, a group of North American cantors who traveled here after visiting Poland recently shared their experiences this week at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai. "The story of Poland and the Jewish people is a story of 1,000 years," said cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California as he described the Cantors Assembly's mission. The group represents Conservative/Masorti cantors and is the largest body of cantors in the world. While it has periodically held missions here in the past, this is the first time that they have chosen to include another country as well. The mission took place from June 29 through July 12 and included 75 cantors and 250 laypeople. Consisting of a week in each country, participants traced Poland's Jewish history by emphasizing the more than 6,700 righteous Polish gentiles who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust. "I felt that the story had to be told from a different viewpoint," said Lam, who co-chaired the mission and is a past president of the Cantors Assembly. "The fact is, Jews lived in Poland and thrived there. So we went there to give credit to the Righteous Gentiles, to bring hazzanut [cantorial music] back to that country, and to come here to Israel." In addition to holding memorial ceremonies at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the Warsaw Ghetto, the cantors performed at the National Opera House and the Krakow Philharmonic for Gentile audiences. "We began by circling around our roots in Poland, by clinging mostly to people who are not Jewish, who were curious, who were hungry for some glimpse of our amazing history and heritage. We showed them that Am Yisrael hai, the Jewish people live, and that the cantors sing," said Nancy Abramson of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, and vice president of the Cantors Assembly. Throughout the mission, the cantors devoted themselves to their passion. "There is nothing that compares to what we as cantors can bring to missions because we bring a heart and soul and we stir emotion through song to really become a part of a celebration, memorializing our song," said David Propis, of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, Texas, the newly elected president of the Cantors Assembly and cochair of the mission. The cantors believe that missions like this one serve to not only immerse themselves in their calling, but to also help strengthen the role of the cantor within the synagogue. "The rabbis are normally the figureheads of congregational leadership. I think that through this mission, we are making a concerted effort to remind people that we are a resource that should be treasured and not overlooked," said Steven Stoehr, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois. "Professionally, it is important for us to be able to get together and compare notes and share collegiality, because that serves as an opportunity for us to discuss how our year has been, to talk about our respective situations, to gain insight into our respective synagogues, and to keep us going through the next year, until we can meet again. These missions give us a renewal of spirit," said Larry Goller of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. The mission is already considered a success. "We are already talking about going to other countries," said Steven Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly. "We're starting to get feedback about Poland and people from other countries are saying to us, 'We would like to have you come to our country as well; we would like you to participate in a renaissance of Jewish life in our country.'"