For those unfamiliar with Jewish worship, what is a cantor?
A cantor is a co-clergy person with a rabbi in a synagogue. The role of a cantor is primarily to engage the congregation in the music of the worship, to highlight and elevate pieces of the liturgy musically and work with the rabbi to create meaningful moments in worship for the Jewish community, to provide moments of gratitude and community as well as moments of reflection and introspection through music. Outside of worship, a cantor does many of the same things a rabbi does in terms of life cycle events, counseling, teaching adults and children about our history and our tradition, as well as providing musical guidance for choirs and musical training.
You're working for more relevance in communal Jewish music. What kind of change are you seeking?
The beauty of Jewish music is it's always changing and evolving. Jews have always incorporated the music of their cultures in which they live and have always been open to how to create more meaning. My goal in continuing to change worship is really to collaborate with all kinds of Jewish musical traditions to make sure that Jews -- whether they come into the synagogue or worship outside the synagogue -- have music that challenges them and resonates with them in lots of different ways.
Each congregation is going to have its own comfort with what the music is. There's no magic bullet in terms of what the music should sound like to make it engaging. But what I'm challenging our communities to do is to look deeply to find different, creative ways for engage people. I play acoustic guitar. I sometimes have a band that has an electric bass. But that clearly doesn't have to be. But I think we do have to be open to what sounds and styles are going to meet people where they are and help take them to a new place. That means thinking creatively about how we understand prayer itself.
Music is used in all kinds of religious worship. What about music helps people connect to God?
It's always interesting to me that people are willing to sing credos or statements of faith that they may not totally believe in. It's easier to sing them than it is to say them. I think there's something about singing that makes people feel alive, that helps people's bodies awake in some way. I think people like to hear other people singing. There's a sense of connection to other people when a lot of people are singing together.
You mentioned wanting people to think creatively about prayer. What do you think prayer is?
I think prayer is a vehicle to opening oneself to the divine, whatever that looks like to each person. Prayer is a practice; it's a pathway to finding oneself in the world, to anchoring oneself to community. I don't really see prayer as an end, but as a means to give us roots and connection and to give us hope, to help us feel like we're not alone in the universe, even if our belief in God isn't there, or if even if our belief in God is very different from the person next to us.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
At my core, one of my defining beliefs is that while every individual has a gift and something to give the world, we can do the most when we are in community, when we are working together. I think music helps give people the sense that there is a "together," there is a oneness that can then propel us individually. It takes a communal interaction, a sense of belonging, a sense of cooperation, that gives individuals the strength and courage to go out in the world and do what they need to do.
- Liz Essley