Sussex’s new cantor wants to reach kids ‘where they are’
Judith Naimark comes to B’nai Shalom with varied background
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Over the course of her career, Cantor Judith Naimark has served seven congregations — Reform and Conservative, rural, suburban, and urban. Today she is settling in at B’nai Shalom of Sussex County.
Naimark, who began her tenure at B’nai Shalom on Sept. 1, said she is acclimating to her new surroundings and added, “I hope I’ll be here for a long time.”
“I have lived in rural towns before, but this is the most rural I’ve been in,” said Naimark in a recent phone interview with NJJN. Naimark recently made the move from Middletown, NY, to the congregation’s parsonage in Newton, and said she’s had some difficulty finding kosher food. While she’s been able to get kosher poultry, she said, she hasn’t yet found a place to get hallah.
“I’m using matza instead of hallah, since I overbought last Passover,” she said.
The congregation emerged from a 2015 merger between the Reform Temple Shalom in Franklin and the Conservative Jewish Center of Sussex County in Newton, and both buildings, which are about 12 miles apart, are still used. The congregation of about 120 traces its history back to 1832.
“I want to help connect people in the community to each other and reinforce their Jewish identity and Jewish pride and Jewish knowledge,” Naimark said while discussing her goals. She plans to train more adults to chant Torah and haftara, learn about the liturgy, and to be a “presence.”
Raised in the Conservative movement, invested as a cantor by the Reform movement, Naimark said she feels comfortable in either denomination — perhaps, she said, that’s why she seems to have found her match at B’nai Shalom.
Congregants agreed with that assessment.
“It is a major decision for any congregation to find suitable clergy,” said Harvey Wasserman. “In our case it is and continues to be a bit difficult to satisfy the needs of two somewhat different congregations now becoming one.”
Referring to her as “Cantor Judy,” Wasserman said Naimark has “the experience to work with both ideologies as we try to become one, to teach in our growing Shabbat school, to lead us in our services, to be able to work with our rabbi” — Rabbi Josh Cantor, who lives in Westfield — “and she has a marvelous voice.” And, Wasserman added, the congregation hopes their new cantor will be “a drawing card for new members. Outreach will be a major endeavor.”
Naimark also said she’s eagerly anticipating one benefit of the Franklin synagogue’s location.
“I’m looking forward to Tashlich, going to the lake right there by the Franklin building,” she said, referring to the ritual of casting of breadcrumbs representing one’s sins into a body of water, traditionally done on the first day of Rosh Hashana.
‘The participatory quotient’
If it weren’t for Cantor Robert Bloch at Temple Sholom of West Essex, a Reform congregation in Cedar Grove, Naimark would not have become a cantor. She told NJJN she was working with Bloch in 1987, leading the alto section for his High Holy Day choir.
Unlike many singing in a professional choir, Naimark was knowledgeable in Judaism. She’d grown up first at a congregation in Rockville, Md., and then at the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, where she loved listening to the cantor, Erno Grosz. “He showed how moving liturgical music can be,” said Naimark. “He got in the solemnity and the joy.” But she also remembers Rabbi Seymour Katz, the sexton who ran the davening at FHJC and who often chanted Shaharit. “He had such a wonderful presence,” Naimark said. “He did not have a cantorial voice, but he got real kavanah [intention] into the davening.”
Recognizing her potential, Bloch suggested she consider cantorial school, something that wasn’t on her radar back then. In those days, at the Conservative synagogue her family belonged to in Queens, “Women tended to be disenfranchised,” she said, and were offered little opportunity on the bima beyond reading the haftara. The Conservative movement begun ordaining women as rabbis in 1985, and the first women were just beginning to be invested as cantors in 1987, while Naimark was making her decision.
Bloch steered her to the Reform Hebrew Union College, his alma mater, which had been admitting women since 1971. And when she contacted two Conservative cantors who also advised her to choose HUC, that clinched her decision and she entered in 1988.
She has since served seven congregations, including Park Avenue Synagogue in New York; Congregation Beth Shalom of Wilmington, Del.; Temple Beth El in Harrisburg, Pa.; Central Synagogue of Nassau County on Long Island, and, most recently, Temple Sinai in Middletown, NY.
She is a member of the American Conference of Cantors and the Cantors Assembly, as well as the New Jersey Cantors Concert Ensemble, where she serves as secretary.
Naimark acknowledged that as a contemporary cantor, she faces two big challenges: first, navigating when to use traditional hazanut and when to facilitate congregational participation. “It’s something I’m working on — increasing the participatory quotient,” she said. “People want to feel they are davening for themselves,” which, she admitted, has certain advantages. But she believes that also leads to the loss of those moments in the liturgy that call for something else. “While emotion can be expressed through nigunim everyone can sing, sometimes we need moments where we need to listen and be moved by the cantor.”
The second challenge comes with training the next generation, and coping with the feeling she is doing battle with a “sports establishment in schools that is very strong and very inflexible. When it’s a choice between Hebrew school and missing a game, the game wins,” she said.
She said she always tells youngsters that when they get up on the bima for their bar or bat mitzva, “they can’t say, ‘I didn’t have time to study my Torah portion because I was at a soccer game.’ But I also try to be mindful and reach each person at the place they are.”
Pointing to the Rosh Hashana Torah reading relating the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Naimark said she reminds herself that they are sent into the desert, and Ishmael calls out to God. “An angel is sent to tell them not to worry, and that God has heard the voice of the boy ‘ka’asher hu sham’ — from where he is.”
“That’s what we need to do today. To meet our children where they are.”