Cantor Nancy Abramson is director of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of The Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also senior vice president and two-time national convention co-chair of the Cantors Assembly-the first woman to hold any office in the organization. A seasoned pulpit cantor, she is slated to become president of the Cantors Assembly in May 2013. Cantor Abramson sits on the boards of the Zamir Choral Foundation and Magic Circle Opera Repertory Ensemble, and is a past board member of the Women Cantors Network. She has performed at Carnegie and Avery Fischer halls, and sung with Israel's Rinat Choir under the direction of Zubin Mehta.
Cantor Abramson, tell us a little about your background.
I was appointed director of the H. L. Miller Cantorial School in summer 2011. I also teach the Senior Seminar in the H. L. Miller Cantorial School, and will be teaching a new course in spring 2013-Leading Communities in Prayer and Song-open to all graduate students.
I'm a graduate of the Joint Program of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies (BHL in Jewish History) with Columbia University (BA in music), earned my MA in music education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and received my cantorial training at JTS. Before returning to JTS, I served as a pulpit cantor at two New York City synagogues: 14 years at Park Avenue Synagogue, where I directed all musical aspects of congregational life and the choirs, planned concerts, and developed curricula for b'nai mitzvah; and 12 years prior to that at West End Synagogue, where I was founding cantor and organizer of the Hebrew school. I also served at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff Manor, New York, where I developed an innovative curriculum for teaching trope, among many other responsibilities.
Why did you choose to bring your cantorial skills back to JTS?
Having served the Jewish community for more than 30 years as a synagogue cantor, I felt ready to return to JTS when the position of director at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School became available. First, I was excited to bring my "field expertise" to academia at the moment when JTS was rethinking the school's curriculum. I believe that there is a vibrant future for cantors-in partnership with rabbis and other synagogue professionals-to create a meaningful 21st-century Conservative Judaism. Second, I believe passionately in the added value a cantor brings to a community. Our synagogues need leaders who can inspire them, and music is by its very nature inspiring. My vision of the essential role of music in the religious and cultural life of the Jewish people encompasses heritage, professionalism, and legacy. The cantorial students at JTS study the great musical traditions and nusah of our past, and learn to transmit them in ways to excite 21st-century Jews. I wanted to be on the forefront of this movement.
Working at JTS has afforded me the opportunity to help shape the future of the cantorate. Because of the breadth of scholarship and creativity at JTS, I have been able to hone the traditional aspects of our cantorial education and bring in new ideas as well. One of the most exciting moments for me this year was participating with our students in a workshop with students from the Juilliard School, dialoguing and exploring Jewish music together. A weekly highlight is teaching the Senior Seminar. I spend time with our senior students, helping them craft their resumes, audio files, and portfolios, preparing them for interviews and working on music for their senior recital. But the most rewarding part of this teaching is guiding them toward their individual passions and personal missions as cantors. When one of the students told me that my classroom was a "safe space" in which to explore and create, I felt a deep sense of pride in my work.
How do you experience the congregational contributions of our cantors and the partnership between them and our rabbis?
There is an old joke that says, "The rabbi tells the people what God wants, and the cantor tells God what the people want." To me, this joke explains why music in prayer is so powerful. We need all of these elements in place for the relationships to work at the highest levels. Our liturgy is beautiful and expressive, and when sung by a trained, sensitive hazzan, the words transcend time and space.
Is there some particular question or issue you'd like to resolve or gain insight into?
I enjoy creating partnerships and bringing the H. L. Miller Cantorial School further into the greater New York community. Toward that goal, I am working on a five-concert series under the aegis of the JTS Arts Advisory Board. In addition to the Juilliard partnership, concerts will include the recent New York premiere at JTS of a Hanukkah suite by Abraham Kaplan, and a concert performance of a new opera by Cantor Gerald Cohen, a member of our JTS faculty.
What suggestions do you have for students just entering the cantorate?
Today's cantorial students need an expanded skill set in order to succeed. We are, of course, still educating cantors to be experts in nusah and prayer, but we are also training them to be even more knowledgeable about Jewish education and teaching, pastoral needs, and modern Israel.
Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and have been a Conservative Jew all of my life. I attended Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, travelled on the Ramah Israel Seminar, and served as music specialist at several Ramah camps.
My experiences with choral singing have been a major influence. I sang in my synagogue choirs beginning at age eight, and we were privileged to have Max Janowski, a giant in American Jewish composition, as our choir director. When I came to New York to attend college, I joined the Zamir Chorale and sang with Matthew Lazar, who impressed on me the importance of text in Jewish music performance. When I lived in Israel for a year, I sang with the Rinat Choir under the baton of Zubin Mehta, and I have had the incredible experience of performing as a soloist on the stages of Carnegie and Avery Fischer halls and the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
I am married to Mitch Glenn. We have three children and one adorable grandson. In my spare time, I practice yoga and enjoy biking and walking around New York.
What's on the horizon for you, Cantor Abramson?
Now that I am no longer working as a cantor every Shabbat, I am able to travel to shuls around the country to serve as cantor-in-residence. I will be going to B'nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida, in January 2013 for Shabbat Shira.
Later in May, I will become the president of the Cantors Assembly, the largest professional organization of hazzanim in the world. I will be the first female president in the assembly's 66-year history, and look forward to emphasizing continuing education for my colleagues. It is wonderful that being a female cantor and being next in line for the presidency of the CA now feels "normal." This was certainly not the case when I entered the cantorate. My mother always tells me that I am a "pioneer," and now I hope to be a positive role model.