After 30 years, Sha’arey Shalom’s pioneering cantor calls it a day

After 30 years, Sha’arey Shalom’s pioneering cantor calls it a day

Upon her retirement, congregants sing Amy Daniels’ praises

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

It might seem strange, but Cantor Amy Daniels looks at her impending retirement after 30 years at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield Township as a beginning. “I’ve come to appreciate this stage of life as a new stage rather than the end of something — like graduation from college and going onto something new.”

Daniels, 65, was feted on May 5 at a gala held at the synagogue, which included a surprise blessing from the religious school students at their final assembly this year; besides serving as cantor, she has also been director of the religious school since 1998. She, along with her husband, Scott, will be moving from their longtime home in White Meadow Lake to Walnut Creek, Calif., to be closer to their two sons who live on the West Coast.

Speaking with NJJN in her office on June 29 at the tail end of her last week on the job, she said, “It’s been very fulfilling. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity this year to step back, reflect, and be acknowledged.”

As much as congregants were excited for the arrival of Cantor Jason Rosenman, who succeeds Daniels, they are also coming to realize how much they will miss Daniels. Past president Hank Rottenberg, a member for more than 20 years, thought about Daniels’ contributions to the synagogue over the years and said, “She just can’t leave, that’s it,” as if he could wish it so.

Many congregants said they will miss her warmth, her compassion, her leadership, and her creativity. But all of them referred to the joy she brings to services and the rapport she has with congregants and students alike.

“I just tap along with her music,” said current co-president Roberta Krumholz. “You want to get up and dance.”

“There’s joy on the bima, there’s dancing on the bima,” said Cindy Sigl, a past president and member of the choir. Unlike the synagogue of her childhood, which Sigl described as “boring, boring, boring,” she said she particularly appreciates Daniels’ “fancy operatics.”  

“You get so embodied in her music. She has brought it to life.” 

Daniels’ background is in Israeli folk music, not traditional chazzanut. “My sense of Jewish music was sitting around a table and singing,” she said. A guitar is never far from her side. Growing up she attended Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, but her summers at Habonim Dror — the camping arm of the Labor Zionist youth movement — which puts an emphasis on folk music to enhance the camping experience, left their mark. She played piano and guitar, and spent plenty of time involved in modern dance. But she did not take voice lessons, only falling into the cantorate later. After college, she moved to New York and studied a method of teaching rhythm through music called Dalcroze-Eurhythmics. At the same time, she was earning money teaching Hebrew school and meeting rabbinic and cantorial students. 

“Suddenly, the idea of having a career in Jewish music occurred to me,” she said.   

After attending cantorial school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, Daniels worked at Temple Shalom in Succasunna before moving to Sha’arey Shalom.

But even though chazzanut never became her defining style, she still uses it from time to time. “I think a good cantor can lift a congregation with very good singing and good choices,” she said. 

Beyond her musical talents, members praised Daniels’ ability to engage congregants. 

Roger Held, a longtime member, past president, and member of the search committee that hired Daniels, started teaching in the religious school after a 40-year career in business. “She has the ability to inspire people to reach for the best in themselves,” he said. “She gave me the opportunity and the encouragement to teach and work with kids. She gave me the help to make it effective. She was a big part of my participation in this phase of my life.”

Rottenberg pointed out that many adults in the congregation can now chant Torah, which he does every Yom Kippur. It’s not an easy job, he quipped. “She has the patience of a saint working with us.”   

Daniels had the same effect on many of the teens: She used music to reach them and bring them to synagogue.

“Her relationship with kids was phenomenal,” said Rottenberg, whose son was in the choir. “I could never get him to sing. She’d call [and Rottenberg’s son would answer], ‘What time do you need me? How can I help?’”

And her door was always open. “She always had time,” said Rottenberg. “Even if you came by three minutes before a service, it was, ‘Come on in.’” 

She saw the open door as an integral part of the job. “Underneath, maybe I wasn’t feeling so accommodating,” she acknowledged. “But I learned the minute you walk in the building, you’re on, because you never know when some meaningful interaction will happen.”

She was a new mother when she joined the Springfield congregation, and the job was part-time. At the time the congregation employed Ron Brown as music director, and he composed much of the congregation’s music and managed the choir. 

When Brown retired, it fell to her to introduce some traditional melodies to the congregation. She also created the junior choir and arranged concerts at the temple, which over the years have included performers ranging from Rick Recht and Neshama Carlebach to Nefesh Mountain and Peri Smilow. She introduced Shabbat under the Stars, an annual Friday night service outside; and one year, the temple choir performed Verdi’s Va Pensiero (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from the opera Nabucco) at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. 

Sha’arey Shalom’s educational director moved on just as Daniels felt ready to come back to work in a full-time capacity, so she agreed to take on the open position. In that role she came to appreciate how the position enabled her to innovate, combining learning and music. 

“Involving kids in music was a natural thing for me,” she said. “We could do a combination of singing and learning and I didn’t have to coordinate with the cantor or have arguments about style, because I was the cantor!”

When the temple’s longtime leader, Rabbi Josh Goldstein, retired in 2012, the congregation went through a trying period with a new rabbi who did not work out, something that Daniels referred to as “really challenging.” She reached out to friends and colleagues for support, but Rottenberg said that Daniels was “the glue that held the synagogue together,” and the “even keel” during a tumultuous time. 

“She ensured my synagogue would survive,” Rottenberg said.

Three years ago, the congregation hired Rabbi Renee Edelman, and everything changed. “I’m very glad I stuck it out because I got to work with a female colleague,” said Daniels. “This has been heaven on earth.” (Edelman will take over the role of educational director.)

Having the opportunity to work with Edelman almost seems like a bookend to her time at Sha’arey Shalom. When she started in the cantorate, she was something of a pioneer. “Women had to prove themselves. We had to worry about things like how we dressed.” And when guests visited the congregation, she recalled, “They used to ask if I was married to the rabbi.” 

She loves working with Edelman, and appreciates “how comfortable she is in her skin. No one is asking if she’s married to the clergy.… It’s a wonderful way to wrap up my career.”

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