Hazzan Magda Fishman Says Relationships Are Her Priority
If you happen to walk up to Congregation B’nai Torah in Boca Raton and find Hazzan Magda Fishman sitting on a bench, you are in luck. After arriving at the congregation at the start of the pandemic and experiencing her first two years of communal life almost entirely on Zoom, Fishman now loves to greet people in person. “Welcome home!” she says in her warm, Israeli-accented voice.
A former vocal soloist and trumpet player with the Israel Army Orchestra, Fishman believes that music and prayer offer people hope. Though she brings an infectious enthusiasm and Broadway-quality vocal ability to her congregational leadership, she says that what she loves the most about her work—and prioritizes above all—is forming relationships.
That could be a challenge in B’nai Torah’s 1,300-plus household congregation under the best of circumstances, never mind for Fishman, who came to the community just as Covid took hold. “There was not a moment’s pause,” she recalls, describing how the synagogue switched to online programming, from services to classes to Zoom schmoozing time in place of kiddush. “We knew we had to keep people together and immediately got on the same page.”
Fishman’s role at B’nai Torah runs the gamut from visiting early childhood and religious school classrooms and rocking with the children to leading the choir (which remained online throughout the pandemic)) and managing the congregation’s famed concert series, which next year will mark its 30th anniversary and which draws thousands from the broader Palm Beach community. “Producing and performing in our concert series is really one of my biggest prides since it brings the broader community together,” said Fishman.
The impact she has made at B’nai Torah, said Fishman, is only possible due to the talented people who help operate the synagogue. She cherishes her close partnership with Rabbi David Steinhardt—“We dream together”—and says sveryone from the synagogue president to office staff helps create a warm, welcoming environment. “So many people are involved in creating our village.”
Yet for all her immersion in her role as hazzan, Fishman still marvels that she became a cantor at all.
“When I came to New York to attend the Manhattan School of Music, just across the street from JTS, I had no idea that I would someday become a cantor,” she said. Then, helping out once a month at Sutton Place Synagogue’s Friday night services, she met Cantor Dov Keren (now a congregant at B’nai Torah) who encouraged her to consider cantorial school at JTS.
Fishman grew up in Jaffa, the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, in a secular but traditional home. “I had never seen a woman sing on the bimah,” she said. At Cantor Keren’s urging, she met with the former H. L. Miller School dean, Cantor Henry Rosenblum. “I raised all my doubts,” she recalls, “and Henry reassured me that part of being Jewish is having doubts.”
Looking back, “I learned everything at JTS,” she says, explaining that the school not only taught her the fundamentals of leading prayer—nusah, melodies, theory, tefillah—but “it shaped my adult Jewish identity.” She credits Cantor Rosenblum with a credo for her work. “My approach in my role as a clergy person is to meet people where they are, because at JTS, I was met where I was.”
In addition to serving B’nai Torah as cantor and producing its concert series, Fishman also performs internationally with other JTS alumnae in Divas on the Bima. But her priority remains fostering relationships. “Even with 1,000 people in the sanctuary, our kehillah kedoshah, sacred community, has the feel of a family. When I say, ‘Welcome home,’ I really mean it.”