Good evening everyone, and thank you so much for being here. I am truly honored to celebrate with you tonight. This is a true celebration and commemoration of my journey of twelve years here at TBS. I want to offer thanks first to the committee who put together this spectacular celebration – to Melanie, Hollis, Marla, Caron, Liz, Cindy, Joyce, Linda, and Galit – thank you for the countless hours you have been putting into this celebration. I know you have been planning this for most of the year, and have been so excited to be here. To Rabbi Lipper, thank you for all of your support this past year. It has been an adventure at times, and I thank you for navigating the journey with me. To all of my fellow staff present and past, I couldn’t have accomplished everything that I did here at TBS without your partnership and it has been a pleasure working alongside you. To our current board members and the countless board members of the past, you are the engine that helps make this congregation run alongside the many volunteers who give of their time. Thank you for helping to create a vision and to make those dreams come alive. To my dear colleagues, working as clergy alongside you is a privilege and an honor and I feel blessed to know you, to learn from you, and to lead our communities side-by-side. To my dear friend Michael, you are a continual blessing with your endlessly caring soul, and I am so grateful to know you. Thank you also for helping me pack and move lots of boxes and furniture! To the Vaughter, Eisenman, and Stein families, you made me a part of your family from the very start of my time here in California and for that I am forever grateful. To my parents, Sharon and Murray, my aunt Carol, and also my sister Lisa, who isn’t here tonight, but will be here in a week to drive with me cross-country, I am ever grateful to have your incredible support and love always supporting me throughout everything I have ever done, through the ups and downs, and I am so glad to have you here tonight. To all of you here – each of you have been an essential part of my cantorial journey. You each have made a mark upon me, and I will forever carry you forward in my heart as I move into my next adventure.
My twelve years here have been the most formative of my career thus far, and have shaped me into the cantor I am today. For that, I am truly grateful that TBS became a home for me. Little did I know back in 2010 that so much was ahead for me. As I reflect upon all of these years, there are certain memories that are major highlights for me that I share now with you in retrospect.
I arrived here in early July, 2010, driving here on a day when I am sure there was leftover June gloom, and I didn’t even know much about what that even was. I do clearly remember arriving here early on a morning when Camp Sholom was beginning its first week, and I was immediately thrown into learning all of the staple songs of the camp – a tradition that I would carry forward for many years. Camp Sholom for me represents an essential component of the history of this congregation, and many of my TBS memories are enwrapped in the events of the camp – in our Shabbat songsessions and in the many trips we took, whether to the beach, to Knott’s, or to skating – roller skating or on the ice. Camp Sholom was a very unique and dynamic element of TBS and I hold high hopes that it will return again in the future, making indelible memories for many generations to come.
By January of 2011, TBS was thrust into the national spotlight, when we hosted the funeral of Debbie Friedman. 11 years ago, we were well ahead of the curve as over 20 thousand people watched a video livestream of her funeral within those first 24 hours, long before our current days of endless Zoom meetings. That month, I also celebrated my installation here as the first full-time and fully ordained cantor of TBS. It was a celebration that was spread over three days with prayer and blessings, study alongside my former colleague Rabbi Ben Sternman, and a concert with my dear friend Cantor David Serkin-Poole and a few spectacular musicians.
Now, if you ask me what the greatest highlight of my time here at TBS has been, I will tell you without pause that it is the time I have spent training and really getting to know all of my b’nei mitzvah students. That, alongside the moments of bringing all of these students to the bimah and to Torah, are some of my most cherished memories. And, I will say, I remember each and every student I have worked with, and in some cases, I even recall the voices of specific students chanting their Torah portion when it resurfaces in future years. That is what it is like living with the mind of a cantor! I also hold very special memories of students I worked with in which we crafted customized services to serve their special needs. For these students, becoming b’nei mitzvah was often quite a journey, and we celebrated a significant milestone when we reached their special day. I have always felt that we did this exceptionally well here.
I equally cherish the happy memories I have of teaching all of my students of all ages, from preschool to adult. I am so proud of the complex, but super fun projects we took on in creating our amazing Purim shpiels and our Jewish music videos, some which after hours of editing, garnered thousands of views. When anyone ever asks me about TBS and what we do well, especially newcomers, I have often told them that we are never afraid of thinking outside of the box. A new idea? – let’s try it out! This way of thinking has always been in line with my perspective, because you don’t really ever know how things will go until you try them. I have always loved this approach, and hope TBS will continue to experiment in new ways of thinking.
When I say February, 2014, if you were here then, I likely have to say nothing more. It was on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 15th that the now infamous fire occurred, changing the path of the temple in so many ways. What we learned from that experience, more than navigating insurance and the value of priceless items like Torah scrolls, was that a congregation is much more than a building. It was a lesson I was carrying forward over these past two years in our online, pandemic-shutdown world. In 2014 and the following year, we were also gifted with the opportunity during our reconstruction period to explore many other sacred spaces throughout Orange County, to deepen our connections with our sister congregations, and we were supported immensely by the Orange Stake of the Latter Day Saint community, who opened their facilities to us for over a year and treated us like family. Despite the challenges the fire initially created for us, we celebrated multiple times over when we first broke ground and then eventually returned to our stunning new and reinvented campus.
I loved returning to our newly revived sanctuary, and as a cantor, the view one has looking out from the bimah is one that is forever pictured in my mind. It is a view that holds symbiotic energy, as I share with you prayers and invite you to join in singing. And, you look back with a smile or a pensive gaze depending on the moment. I cherish each and every one of these ritual moments, as well as the spiritual moments we have created outside the walls of the sanctuary, whether during our summer outdoor services, gatherings on the beach, on b’nei mitzvah and family retreats, or for the unique few who have traveled alongside me and others from the temple representing TBS on the national level at a URJ biennial. And, we have created so many holy moments together – at lifecycle events both happy and sad, and in the many musical moments I have had both on and off the bimah with our choir or tefillah band. I have been inspired by the Interfaith programs we have built – our Iftar dinners, a few Interfaith Thanksgiving services, and a few notable visits I made to the community of Jewish women living in the prison in Corona. I have loved having the opportunity to enjoy and make music beyond our services with concerts of some of my favorite music performed alongside wonderful colleagues and musicians, and bringing other musical opportunities to the congregation and community at-large through our Maxine Horwitz Cultural events.
I consider myself rather lucky that I was able to travel and utilize the majority of my sabbatical time in early 2020. This was a period of time that I had spent a lot of time planning, and I was super fortunate to have the opportunity to travel throughout Europe, first to Normandy and Vienna, then with my final destination being a small town in Northern Bosnia called Doboj, where a Torah cover has the name of my great grandfather on it in his memory. I was able to meet my friend Dario and the small Jewish community there. I shared music with them, and learned much more about the Jewish history throughout the country. It was fascinating and an opportunity of a lifetime.
I certainly don’t have to share much about the 15 months of my solo leadership here at TBS which soon followed. Much has been shared about that in the past. But, what I will say is that challenging period changed our world, our congregation, and it changed me immensely as a cantor and as an individual. In many ways, it led me to this point where I knew it was time for me to move on to the next step in my cantorial journey and I thank all of you for your support and blessing while I have navigated this period of transition. If you know me well, you know that I am an avid reader, and I have taken great delight in sharing some of my favorite books over the years with many of you. I found myself reading many biographies over the past several years, and what I have loved about these is that behind the story of success of so many famous people is the story of the struggle in the journey that brought them to that point. And, within that struggle was the defining principle which ultimately made them into who they are.
In her quintessentially honest and very Israeli look at life, singer-songwriter Naomi Shemer stated in one of her most beloved songs, Al Kol Eileh, that there is a blessing in all things. She sings “Al had’vash v’al ha’oketz, al ha’mar v’ha’matok,” over the honey and the bee sting, over the bitter and the sweet, and continues … “protect the little that I have, the light and the children, the fruit not yet ripened, and the ones that were picked … please guard all these things for me, and over my beloved ones, over the quiet and the tears, and this song.”
Thank you all for adding the extra harmony to my song of these past twelve years. Please let me know if you are ever in Pittsburgh, and I am sure I will be back to visit. It has been a true honor to be your cantor and I will not say goodbye, but l’hitraot, until we meet again.