Grandmother achieves ‘impossible’ role: cantor

Grandmother achieves ‘impossible’ role: cantor

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Cantor Joan Finn of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel was formally invested by the Academy of Jewish Religion on May 13. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Cantor Joan Finn of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel was formally invested by the Academy of Jewish Religion on May 13. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

Joan Finn giggles with delight when someone calls her “Cantor Finn.”

The South Orange grandmother of four who had no formal Jewish background once thought it would be “impossible” for her to become a cantor.

The impossible became reality as she was invested on May 13 by the Academy of Jewish Religion in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where she was part of a class of two cantors and eight rabbis.

(Her classmates included Rabbi Moshe Rudin of Temple Hatikvah in Flanders. See Related Article.)

Achieving that seemingly out-of-reach goal was not easy, Finn said, and even realizing that it was her goal was not always clear. “It was a slow, gradual process,” she said over iced coffee at Crane’s Deli & Cheese Shop in Maplewood one recent morning.

Although she had received voice training and had earned a master’s degree in music performance from the Manhattan School of Music, the career she pursued was in corporate banking. She landed in South Orange 27 year ago when she married her husband, Ron Finn. She joined Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel there because Ron and his two daughters, then 13 and 15, were already members. In fact, the first time she stepped inside the temple was for her younger stepdaughter’s bat mitzva service. “Certainly, I never thought then that this would be my future employer,” she quipped.

Within a year of moving to town, she quit banking and slowly grew more involved in music at the synagogue, first joining the choir, then led by Michael May, then working with Cantor Ted Aronson, who became her mentor. “I realized I really, really loved being back in music,” she said.

She received plenty of encouragement, eventually ending up as a cantorial soloist five-and-a-half years ago. She has held a variety of part-time positions at the synagogue over the last 15 years, from professional singer to bar/bat mitzva tutor to shiva minyan leader. Now, finally, she is “Cantor Finn” — though still serving part-time.

Six years ago, she even had the opportunity to lead High Holy Day services. That experience, and being introduced to AJR shortly afterward by a congregant who had received ordination there, clinched her decision to enroll as a student in the academy’s five-and-a-half-year program.

At the graduation ceremony in June, Aronson presented Finn. “I was so honored that Ted Aronson came to present me as a cantor for the first time. It was an incredible moment,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged that she has entered the cantorate at a precarious moment. Congregations are teetering financially all over the country. Many are merging and making drastic cuts in staff. At the same time, from some corners of the professional Jewish world, there is mounting pressure against the very idea of a professional cantorate. Earlier this year, the Jewish Theological Seminary announced the combination of its rabbinic and cantorial programs, effectively collapsing the independent cantors-in-training environment.

Finn said she is “fearful” for her new profession. Where congregations are forced to make a choice between clergy, she said, “they usually feel they need the rabbi.” Cantors, she added, “think we have something to offer beyond what a lay person can do, but we understand times are tough and congregations have to make choices.”

And yet she does not regret her own choice. “You don’t go into this work for huge amounts of money. You do it for service, to serve the Jewish people; it’s a calling,” she said.

Finn said she plans to remain on the staff at Sharey Tefilo-Israel.

“One reason I went back to school is that I love this congregation. I love working with the kids here,” she said. She has already begun training a cadre of them in cantillation, not always the custom in Reform congregations. “I’m getting more and more kids to chant Torah, to give them an understanding of what an incredible concept trope is. I just love showing them how it serves as a blueprint, a map, how these funny symbols that they never noticed before can provide so much information.”

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