Message from Our President

Nancy_AbramsonRemarks BY HAZZAN Nancy Abramson ON HER Installation as President of the Cantors Assembly 

May 22, 2013 

Park Avenue Synagogue, New York, NY 

Firstly, thank you to Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, Chair Steve Friedman, Executive
Director Beryl Chernov and the entire Park Avenue Synagogue family.  I
barely finished asking them to host this evening before they enthusiastically
responded yes.

Thank you to my predecessor, Jack Chomsky, to the Cantors Assembly officers,
past presidents and Executive Council members for your support and confidence
in me.  Thank you to our amazing professional team, Steve Stein, Eric
Snyder, Becky Carmi, Bob Sherr, and administrators Martha Kelly and Cindy
Preston.

And I am so grateful to my convention co-chairs, Sheldon Levin, who emailed me
on November 12, 2010 to offer to co-chair (yes, after I cried with joy, I saved
his email) and Joanna Dulkin who had no idea what she was getting herself into!

I am blessed with friends, teachers and mentors among those in this audience.

I thank my family, many of whom travelled distances to be here today, for their
meaningful presence in my life.  My mother, Flora, who always challenges
me in a good way by just playing devil's advocate, my brother Bruce, sister
Suzi, cousin Lynda and brother and sister-in-law Ray and Marla, who helped me
learn what primal relationships are all about, my children, Arielle and Laurel,
Molly and Dan and Ezra, who understood the importance of being here for what
they have been calling my "coronation", and my in-laws, Ester and
Henry Glenn, who model every day the meaning of Jewish survival.  And I
can't adequately thank my husband, my life partner Mitch, for encouraging me at
every new step in our lives.

A few weeks ago I ran out of my office at the end of the day, sprinted down
Broadway, pulled my mat from its spot on the shelf and grabbed my preferred
space in the yoga studio.  I turned off my phone, sat down cross-legged,
tried to clear the trivia of the day from my mind and waited for class to
begin.  The teacher began by having us slow down our breathing and warm up
our bodies.  It had been a full, tough day, and I found myself just
willing my body to make it through the next 90 minutes.

But then, something wonderful happened.  At the teacher's urging, I found
myself stretching through what I imagined were my limits, holding a position
with slightly more confidence than I thought I could muster, opening up just a
bit more, feeling more balanced.

I take a yoga class twice a week.  Okay, I'm busy and only human,
sometimes it's once a week, but through repeated movements, stretching and
alignment, I am retraining my mind and body.  Yoga practice had taught me
that my physical limits are self-imposed. And, while I might not look any
different on the outside, I have been re-inventing my body from the inside,
every week at a place called Body Strength.

As your new president, my message to you is simple.  We need to
continually re-invent ourselves.  Ours is a fast pace, information filled,
stimulus saturated world.  In order for our Assembly to grow and our
profession to survive, we must improve our artistry, learn new skills and
rethink our limitations.  Each of us can strengthen what we are already
good at, and add new tools to our tool kits.  What are your body
strengths?  Where can you stretch further?

I am not asking you to do this alone.  Just as I need my teacher and the
energy of the other students in yoga class, we need guidance and each other
here in the CA.  I plan to work with my fellow officers and our staff to
strengthen continuing education and outreach through the regions, to increase
programming and learning on a regional and national scale.  I ask all of
you to make the time to attend regional events, and the convention next May in
Florida.  The singing, learning and play that we do together invigorates
us for the work we do in our congregations.

I also plan to initiate a mentoring program for new members, so that those
starting out in the profession can learn from and be guided by an experienced
cantor.  I hope to institute a similar program in the Executive Council,
pairing new EC members with more senior level colleagues, so we can nurture a
growing, vital group of young leadership.

Now, here's a true constricting/stretching story from my past.  When I was
a freshman in college, I took a calculus class for pre-med students.  I
was never planning on becoming a doctor, but I had always enjoyed math and
thought that this high level class would be an interesting challenge.  The
class met four mornings a week at 8:00am.  The impediment to learning was
not the early hour.  The stumbling block was the professor. The class was
filled with male students, I was one of only two women in the classroom.
 And the male teacher would not acknowledge the presence of the women in
his lecture hall.  It did not matter that our hands were raised to ask a
question or give an answer,  we two women were ignored.

I remember poking the male student next to me, and having him raise his hand,
get called on and then ask my questions for me.  Needless to say, I did
not enroll in the second term of calculus.

There was, of course, a time when women were overlooked by the CA.  We
were not permitted to join, let alone contribute and stretch.  We needed
to rely on friendly male colleagues to get our voices heard.  Those were
difficult years for us, men and women, who felt pain at being excluded, sadness
at not being able to raise our voices in the Knesset HaChazzanim, our wonderful
Assembly.

Betty Friedan, in her autobiography Life So Far recalls saying prayers every
night before going to bed. The first prayer was Shema Yisrael, followed by
"God bless mother and daddy".  Friedan writes, "And after
'God bless', we could make a personal prayer, a wish to God.  And I would
wish two things, 'a boy that likes me best', and 'when I grow up, I want a work
to do.' "

Standing on this bima, where for 14 years I had a soul fulfilling work to do, I
thank God that some things have changed since Friedan's childhood.  I am
the first female president in the 66 year history of the Cantors Assembly.
 I am the first, but I stand on the shoulders of all of you in this
Sanctuary, my colleagues and friends, you who have kept the Assembly strong and
vital before me, who have encouraged me, shared your ideas and aspirations with
me and given me the courage to stretch and lead.  "In the eyes of the
world", wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in "What is Man", and
here I bend his gender usage, "I am an average woman.  But to my
heart I am not an average woman.  To my heart I am of great moment.
 The challenge I face is how to actualize, how to concretize the quiet
eminence of my being."  Or, as Nancy Falchuk, former president of
Hadassah said more simply in 2008, "Once the glass ceiling breaks, it's
hard to put it back."

Before I conclude, I want to pose a question that will inform how I lead you
for the coming two years: If we are successful in our work, if we can acquire
the skills and transmit the essence of our cantorate, what will have changed in
the world?  If we strengthen our bodies, our voices our beings, what will
have changed in the world?

In his book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek says, "It's not what you do, it's
why you do it."  Each of us must constantly examine our motivations
for being a hazzan and then work to achieve our goals.  Pirkei Avot, the
Ethics of our Ancestors (3:1) frames the question this way, "Concentrate
on 3 things: know from where you came, to where you are going and before Whom
you stand."

We often say that our work is not a job but a calling. To what are you called?
 What will your legacy be?  What will have changed in the world?
 Will the faces of the children with whom you sang in the Early Childhood
Center still light up upon seeing you when they are teenagers?  Will the
students you taught for Bar and Bat Mitzvah contact you, because you are clergy
who impacted them, to perform their weddings?

Will your volunteer choir members follow you anywhere?  Will those you
visit in hospitals and nursing homes feel better because you were there with
them?   Will your davening open up hearts and souls?  Will your
synagogue and community be enriched for you having led them?

Each of us needs to believe that our answers to these questions are fulfilling
for us.  As you heard yesterday, the CA is exploring a new branding
strategy for our organization that will position us to identify and respond to
the needs of the future.  We will provide continuing education for you to
gain skills in areas needed to move our synagogues and Conservative Judaism
into the 21st century.  I recognize that we all need new and more supple
skills in this challenging job market, and we are committed to helping you
acquire those skills through teaching sessions, our new web site and old
fashioned phone and in-person meetings.

There is no excuse for not striving for excellence.  I recognize that you
have high expectations of me as your new president.   I have high hopes
for each one of you too.  Sheryl Sandberg, in her new book Lean In,
emphasizes that no one gets to the corner office without first sitting at the
table.  I need you to sit at my table, our table, to volunteer, step up
and take responsibility.  Join me, metaphorically in my yoga class.
 I look forward during the next two years to building a stronger Cantors
Assembly, growing and reinventing with you.  Thank you for entrusting me
with the presidency of this organization.

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam, Shehecheyanu v'kiyemanu v'higiyanu
lazman hazeh.