Cantor Lauren Levy
Cantor Lauren Levy is the cantor at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, PA. She was ordained from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM) at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2016.
Let’s start a bit with your background: Why did you become cantor? What influenced you?
Like many of us, people told me that I should become a cantor since my Bat Mitzvah, but I really wasn’t in the headspace at the time. I’ve taken a bit of a circuitous path, but I think I’m stronger for it. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I went to Penn. Midway through, I grew disenchanted with medicine and more interested in opera, but decided to finish my degree, studying psychology, music, and Italian Studies. Then I moved to New York, coordinating depression screening for lung cancer patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I also taught and tutored B’nai Mitzvah students at Central Synagogue. While I enjoyed both of these jobs, I wanted to try my hand at opera, so I went to the University of Miami, where I completed my Masters of Music in Opera and Vocal Performance. I then moved back to New York, where I performed some opera, both in the city and in Europe, and resumed some of my old work. I ultimately found the lifestyle of an opera singer to be rather transient and personally unfulfilling. My mother, in her wonderfully Jewish motherly ways, would reflect back at me when I called her, saying, “You’re always excited to tell me about your interactions with your patients or the lessons you teach your students. But… what arias are you studying for these days?” I realized that the things that excited me, that I wanted to talk about, involved one-on-one relationships built over time, which I couldn’t get as an opera singer. As an opera singer, you’re singing as a character on stage. However, as a cantor, I’m Lauren, playing guitar on the floor with your children, tutoring your pre-teens to become B’nai Mitzvah or counseling you after the passing of a loved one. So I realized I wanted to pursue a career where I could be me and form more relationships with others. Being a cantor allows me to combine singing, teaching, counseling, foreign languages, and Judaism. I think my varied earlier experiences helped me learn more about my passions and how to best use them to contribute to this world in my own way.
What are some of the differences you’ve experienced as a full time cantor as opposed to your student experiences?
It’s a lot more real. I love it! I’m better able to form relationships with my congregants because I’m around more often. I’m a participant in behind-the-scenes conversations, from budget to calendaring, to which I was not privy before. I’ve definitely had an interesting first year. My wonderful rabbinic partner is Beth Kalisch, who just had a beautiful baby girl in September. That means I started my job in July and two months later, I was the main clergy person for our congregation while she was on maternity leave. We had a substitute rabbi (Brian Beal – also great!) for the High Holidays and a bit more. But I was the one giving Divrei Torah and leading services every Shabbat and the one to officiate at life cycle events during this period (including both a funeral and a wedding the weekend of Rosh Hashanah). It was very time consuming and a little overwhelming since I was only just ordained a few months prior. Fortunately, the local clergy and my synagogue staff were very supportive, so I wasn’t totally on my own. I really got to dive in, which is great because I got to know people on a deep personal level.
What sort of experiences or causes in social action are important to you?
When I was at HUC, I ran the soup kitchen for a couple of years, with fellow cantor, Kenny Feibush. I fell in love with it and quickly realized that it was something I needed to do for myself and we needed to be doing in that building. Our Jewish values command us to reach beyond our comfort and beyond our doors. Plus, it’s also good PR to say that we Jews care enough to help others.
Since HUC (and even during), I’ve been active with T’ruah. Though it is primarily a group for rabbis, they’re happy to welcome cantors as well in their call for human rights. Last spring and summer I was part of a liturgy group that helped search for texts and liturgy for Concert Across America to End Gun Violence, which took place on September 25th. Collaborating with Rabbis Against Gun Violence, we commissioned a composer to write a song for these national concerts. In an effort to have my voice heard not just behind the scenes, but also up front as well, I joined with Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence to perform in a local interfaith concert for this event. I also helped create a gun violence awareness panel discussion at Beth David with experts in the field from Ceasefire PA, plus a former confirmation student, who had previously lobbied on gun violence through the RAC L’Taken Social Justice Seminar. Finally, in December, Beth David was one of many houses of worship to participate in Gunfire Prevention Shabbat Service week.
In January, the day after the President Trump’s inauguration, Rabbi Kalisch and I led a text study and song session before the Women’s March in Philadelphia. To be clear, our event was not protesting President Trump; it was our way of framing the day in a Jewish way about important issues to our community. We got sponsorship from the RAC, RRC, AJWS, Repair the World, and others and opened the event to anyone interested. Some other synagogues were reluctant to officially sponsor the event, fearing such politics might be divisive for congregants. I found myself filled with pride to work at Beth David, a synagogue with a strong history of social action, whose clergy and lay leadership were willing to stand up for human rights.
Tell or share one thing with us that we might not know about you.
I like to kickbox. I don’t want to hurt any actual people, but I really like punching and kicking the crap out of the big bag. Perhaps I can also mention that I unfortunately won’t be at the ACC convention this year because I will be returning from my honeymoon. I will miss seeing everyone and having you sing “Happy Birthday” to me in perfect harmony!