ACC Spotlight: Cantor Penny Kessler

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ACC Spotlight: Cantor Penny Kessler

Cantor Penny Kessler of United Jewish Center in Danbury, CT 

Tell us about your Jewish upbringing?

I guess you could call me a typical Conservative Jewish kid from Brooklyn. My parents were affiliated with a small Conservative synagogue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which at the time was one of the very few NOT Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn; I was definitely a minority. My parents were not observant Jews and never came to the synagogue with me, but I vividly remember lighting Chanukah candles, dinners on Rosh Hashanah, and going to Passover seders at my aunt/uncle's house on Long Island.

I went with my sister to High Holiday services and on my own to some Shabbat morning services. I liked the Shabbat morning services because I sat by myself in the overflow balcony (men and women sat together downstairs), and no one bothered me. I raced to see if I could read the Hebrew in the siddur faster than the Cantor could davven (I lost every time). There was a junior congregation on Saturday afternoons, and I remember Rabbi David Feldman inviting me periodically to prepare a devar Torah (or something like that).

Hebrew school met on Wednesday afternoons and Sunday mornings. There were about 6 girls in my class, and we had the same teacher all the way through until bat mitzvah. I hated Hebrew school. My Hebrew was not fluent, I failed at "Hebrew Baseball" (is that still a "thing?*), and I was a disaster at learning about rituals and customs. I LOVED Jewish history and the fact that my classroom was in the library, so I had immediate access to lots of great books. I think I went to one or two post-bat-mitzvah classes and never returned. There were some high school youth group events that I enjoyed.

College was an eye-opener because at Brooklyn College I was suddenly in a majority-Jewish demographic. I joined Hillel, toyed very briefly with kashrut, and loved being around other Jews, even if most of them were either observantly Conservative or Orthodox. It was cool.

What led you to become a cantor?

After our children were born, I was very active as a member of my Danbury synagogue's choir first under Cantor Sam Radwine's and then Cantor Don Roberts' direction. In the late '80's, a spiritual crisis led to a deeper understanding of my relationship with God and Judaism, and at the same time I was exploring options for my future work. I wanted something that would use my newly sparked Judaism and music/singing (I had been a music major in college). Becoming a cantor seemed a good fit, especially because I wanted the next generation of Hebrew School kids to have a different learning experience from my own. My mental wheels went into high gear when my synagogue hired a student cantor, Allen Leider, for a year between Sam and Don; until then I didn't know that cantors actually went to a formal school. I applied to HUC-JIR DFSSM, and was very grateful to Cantor Izzy Goldstein for giving me the opportunity to exempt out of the year-in-Israel part of the curriculum. I worked for about a year and a half on the requirements that were set up for me, and started HUC in September 1990.

Since 1995, you've been serving as the cantor at the United Jewish Center in Danbury, CT. How did you end up at this congregation? What are some of the highlights of your tenure there?

My being called to that pulpit happened in one of those serendipitous events. My family and I had been members there since our daughter was born in 1984 and our sons in 1987; they had been attending the Religious School, and I had been teaching music. After serving as student cantor and then ordained cantor at the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem, NY, it was time for me to explore other options. I had stayed in touch with the people of the UJC - they were friends - and every so often would stop in at the UJC's main office to chat with the staff. Our joke was that if they ever needed me, I'd ride in on my white horse. One morning soon after my decision to look for a new pulpit, I went to UJC for the funeral of a friend's mother and was chatting with the secretary who told me that the cantor (Cantor Thom King) had recently resigned, and they were about to start looking for a new cantor. Timing really is everything. The newly formed search committee immediately went into ACC placement so that they could consider me for the position, and I guess the rest is history.

In the 23 years I've been at the UJC, I've been blessed to work with 5 rabbis, and I have learned a great deal about Judaism and the relationship of clergy to congregation from each of them. I've worked closely with and learned from 4 educators, and many secretaries, custodians, bookkeepers. Every president and committee chairperson has been a blessing. We really are a community, taking care of each other through joys, tragedies, challenges, illnesses, deaths, births, and everything in between. The best thing about my work at the UJC has been the personal relationships I've made there. I've tried hard to use music and texts to bring everyone, from littlest kids to the eldest seniors, to a place of comfort talking about their relationships with God and Judaism. Other than celebrating my 20th anniversary with a lovely gala,

What do you love about being a cantor?

My greatest love is using my voice, combined with our precious texts and music, to bring others and myself closer to  God and Judaism. I feel content when Shabbat worshipers dial back, even zone out, from a stressful week. I feel joy when students - grownups and kids - "get it." I'm honored when I officiate a wedding or a baby naming for former students. While I mourn their deaths, I feel privileged to officiate funerals and unveilings for people with whom I've "lived" for over 30 years. Sitting with someone who is ill or dying is a unique privilege. And I love being a voice in for social action in my community, knowing that for many people, "cantor" as clergy is a previously unknown title.

You’re currently sit on the Executive Board of the ACC after many years of volunteer service and devotion to the organization. How did you become involved in the ACC? And of what are you most proud in terms of your work for the organization?

I became involved when I realized that my passion for social action might be useful to the Conference; I wanted the ACC to be as visibly active in that area as other URJ organizations. I remember coming to plenaries and actively involving myself in discussions and learning from committee members. If I recall, my first committee assignment was when Charles Romalis asked me to join the Committee on Ethics and Appeals; it was both fascinating and fulfilling. I am most proud of bringing issues of communication, mentorship, and ethics in the digital age to the ACC community.

What is life like for you these days?

Life is wonderful. I work with a rabbi and educator who are creative and spiritual partners; we learn from each other and feel comfortable sharing and bouncing ideas off each other. After 25 years I feel like I am finally coming into my own person as a cantor, creatively and spiritually, and am finding and using my voice within my community especially in these challenging times.

What are some of your goals moving forward?

I am planning to create and present my own personal cabaret shows, get even more involved in social action efforts in my community, and try my hand at some song/prayer music writing. For the ACC, since I am moving into the chairmanship of the Committee on Ethics and Appeals, I hope to continue our good work in maintaining and proactively focusing on the ethical challenges of the early 21st Century.