Morristown shul welcomes ‘new’ cantor

Morristown shul welcomes ‘new’ cantor

New clergy - third in a series

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In her office at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, Cantor Shana Onigman displays a book of old sheet music; she painted the brick wall outside her window with a blue sky, a rainbow, and a quote from parshat Noach.
In her office at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael, Cantor Shana Onigman displays a book of old sheet music; she painted the brick wall outside her window with a blue sky, a rainbow, and a quote from parshat Noach.

In the last weeks, readers were introduced to Rabbi Ellie Miller, the new religious leader at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, and Rabbi Renee Edelman, who is serving at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield.

The last of three new clergy members in the region — though none is actually new to the area — is Cantor Shana Onigman, at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael.

Cantor Shana Onigman officially became the cantor at Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael on July 1. In reality, she’s been at the synagogue in various roles since March 2014, when she took over teaching duties for a seventh-grade class. 

She succeeds Cantor Vadim Yucht, who was at the Conservative congregation for five years and became the cantor at Temple Sholom in Bridgewater in 2014. 

She credits, at least in part, the students she taught last year while she was interim cantor with her hiring as full-time cantor. Without telling her, they wrote a letter of recommendation and submitted it to the search committee.

Just looking around her office, it’s obvious how much she enjoys teaching. There’s a small stuffed lion a student gave her, a pair of blinged-up sneakers presented to her by the class mom, and a photo on the wall of her students in the class.

Her expressive personality is also showcased in her window, which looks out on a brick wall. She painted it the color of a cloudless blue sky with a rainbow and a quote from the Noah story.

Onigman, who hails from the Boston area, previously served as the cantor at Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge. She lives in Morristown with her husband, Matthew, a piano tuner and choir conductor, and their two children, just a mile and a half from MJCBY. 

Her enthusiasm for her work and for MJCBY is infectious. She loves the traditions of the congregation, which is more than 110 years old. When she found sheet music filling the shelves in her new office, much of it handwritten, rather than casting it aside or leaving it for someone else to organize, she undertook the task of going through it and identifying the works. 

She exclaimed over her discoveries, sharing them with her colleagues on Facebook — a setting of Yigdal by Leonard Bernstein, a setting of “Hatikva” with Yiddish lyrics. She eagerly showed a binder full of the sheet music to a visitor. “Look, so much of it is handwritten,” she exclaimed. But because much of it is difficult to read, she has decided to digitize it. “That’s my summer project,” she said.

She appears to approach everything in her profession with that kind of delight.

But the gift of tradition is also a challenge at a century-old-plus synagogue. “You never know in an old congregation what things you can change and what things must be,” she said. So she consults with Rabbi David Nesson, who gave her the nod on a new tune for the Etz Chaim prayer that ends the Torah service, but nixed her desire to forgo traditional robes on the High Holy Days.

Onigman seizes opportunities when they present themselves and creates opportunities where none are apparent. In the year between leaving B’nai Israel and joining MJCBY, she took a course in pastoral care at Overlook Hospital that she thinks will serve her well in her new role. She also took up guitar. “I should have studied it as a kid,” she quipped. She has already begun playing guitar with the congregation’s preschoolers, her students, and for the first time at Shabbat services, although she acknowledged she still has plenty to learn.

She has a tendency to jump at the things that interest her. When Hebrew College in Boston launched its joint degree in the cantorate and education, she enrolled, although it required her to transfer from the Jewish Theological Seminary where she had already begun the cantorial program.

She even came to the cantorate as a result of a “jump in,” when her father convinced her to chant some of the prayers during Rosh Hashana at his small congregation in Vermont while she was studying theater. She was so moved by the experience that she continued year after year, until she ultimately reevaluated her career choice.

She loves choral music and sings with Kol Dodi Community Chorale (which her husband codirects) as well as the New Jersey Cantors Concert Ensemble. She laughed when asked about her voice; although she has a deep speaking voice, she is actually a soprano. But she is sensitive to the needs of her congregants. When people — fewer and fewer as time goes on, she acknowledged — say they don’t like women cantors, she tries to hear what they are actually saying, rather than taking it as a slur. “They’re saying they have trouble singing along because it’s too high.” So she adjusts and sings lower for the congregation.

She said she loves having come to MJCBY incrementally, because it has given her a window into the way the congregation operates, before taking on the role of full-time clergy.

“It’s so democratic, and everything is done in teams. And because it’s so old and well established, people are into the history, but they also feel secure, and they don’t sweat the small stuff.”

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