It’s a funny thing about spiritual awakenings: they can come when one least expects them and are frequently life altering. Michael Weis—fourth-year student at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School of The Jewish Theological Seminary, and now first-year student at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education—has had the experience. When he describes it, he acknowledges that it wasn’t a complicated event. Simply put, Mike says, the door opened:
“I was living a very secular life in L.A. At that point in time, I would not even attend a Hanukkah party because it felt too religious to me. I would not go to a seder; nothing. I felt so strongly about it. One day, I suddenly stopped in my tracks and knew I had to explore what Judaism really meant to me and my life.”
Mike didn’t understand the unexpected need, much less his visceral reaction to it, so being a self-confessed “analytical type,” he began reading and asking questions and, one evening, decided to attend a synagogue service with his roommate.
“The rabbi happened to be giving one of his pre-High Holy Days ‘shul shoppers’ talks. So it was a room full of people largely like me, who weren’t there most of the time. The message was remarkably simple, but one that would have never occurred to me. He basically said that religion is like everything else in life: you get out of it what you put into it. And if you walk out of the High Holy Days feeling let down or disappointed—he didn’t use these words, but implied them—you have nobody to blame but yourself. Did you invest yourself in the process? he wanted to know. Did you learn the prayer book? Did you study its poetry? Did you show up on Shabbat? Did you participate? It was a tough-love message that spoke to me; the door opened and allowed me to walk into the tradition in a way that I had not been willing to do before.”
And so this young Jewish man on a quest—a musician and trumpet player, Shakespearean actor (yes, you may also have seen him on the Young and the Restless), graphic artist, business man, and graduate of Stanford University (Economics)—became a regular at the synagogue. He joined the choir and moved from one form of participation to another, until one day, when the rabbi’s wife asked him to read Torah for the congregation:
“That was the beginning, because once I began reading Torah it came naturally. So naturally that, considering that I had not really been exposed to it as a child—though I did have a bar mitzvah and did learn to read Hebrew—it was rather unusual. The rabbi’s wife gave me a piece of music that had all the cantillation symbols on it and the music to chant them and I just learned it because I’d been a musician my whole life. I just knew how to do it. To me it was no big deal, but people around me were like, “How do you do this without anybody teaching you?” I don’t know: I just did it. And that was a very powerful experience to have had; to have known how to do this instinctively. I don’t know what to call it.”
Call the pivotal moments in Mike’s life what you will, he admits that the overall experience turned him toward JTS and graduate work in New York City, and a new life: “I knew JTS would best prepare me to be the kind of cantor I want to be, and that is a cantor in the pulpit of a congregation where I have extensive educational responsibilities. I love to teach.”
And so now Mike is enjoying his full-time commitment to his studies: “I appreciate the wide variety of educational offerings at JTS and the presence of students from undergraduate to graduate, rabbinical to cantorial. All of these together make for a diverse experience.”
An experience completely supported by Mike’s wife, Lisa. She met Mike in Israel while they were each taking different summer courses at Pardes and, today, they make their home in Brooklyn Heights and happily support each other’s goals. According to Mike, Lisa davens and says psalms daily, and keeps a “kosher, kosher home.” She beams proudly as he studies to become the hazzan, teacher, and writer he wants to be and, understanding his story, feels truly blessed that his reawakening took him on a path that included JTS and meeting her.