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Susan Lewis Friedman: Bio

Susan Lewis Friedman - Cantor

I am a Jew by Choice. During my first few years of Cantorial School, I was afraid to tell this personal truth. My sweet husband always “outed” me to people because he loves the fact that I chose to be Jewish, and thinks my story is very moving. He kept telling me that at some point, I should own it because it is a great teaching tool for students. One day my rabbi and I were talking, and he too encouraged me to not run away from that truth, rather to embrace it, and to not be afraid of sharing it with congregants. Sure enough, my story has indeed been a helpful tool to many of my B’nai mitzvah students, particularly ones from interfaith families, who are questioning the relevancy of the process. It concerns me greatly that more people who are born into the covenant do not make the choice to embrace their Judaism. How many kids, after they’ve reached the age of 13, do we see at Synagogue only on the High Holy Days? How many go off to college and then do not even attend those services anymore? Sure, some will come back when they have children of their own. But how many do we lose altogether? When I chose to be Jewish, it was my husband who inspired me to try and help fix this problem because he was the biggest culprit I knew whose life was a textbook example of this phenomenon.

When I was learning about Judaism, I totally fell in love with it. I loved the idea of mitzvot and living one’s life for the here and now, as opposed to some supposed afterlife. I loved the idea that we are created B’Etzelem Elohim, and that through Tikkun Olam, we can tap into the best, most God-like parts of ourselves to fix our world. Shabbat is incredibly beautiful to me—I loved the whole idea of keeping it because God modeled it for us on the seventh day of creation. I also loved the B’nai Mitzvah process, and I could not understand why my husband or anyone else would want to be “finished” with synagogue, studying Hebrew, or Judaism when they completed it. I felt like it should only be the beginning. Ultimately, all Jews are “Jews by Choice,” and I believe that it is my calling to help to influence children, starting at a very young age, to be excited about the fact that they are Jewish, to ultimately choose Judaism, and to help guide them to be vibrant members of their synagogues for life.

When I decided to become a cantor, I had been teaching in religious schools and I found that I was loving that work more than anything else I had ever done. But I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted to be the one to directly influence and help children to love being Jewish, to consider their synagogue a second home, and to stick with Jewish life and not quit going to Hebrew school after B’nai Mitzvah. When making this decision, I recalled a conversation that I had had with Cantor Sol Zim some years before when I had sung in his Conservative synagogue’s professional quartet for the High Holy Days. He had given me a line to sing in the Hineni prayer, and I was very surprised at how I connected with this prayer, and with the response that I received from the congregation after singing it. I was not even Jewish, yet he and some of his congregants commented that my singing was extremely prayerful, and that it helped them to connect to God.

I believe, in fact, that all Jewish pray-ers and seekers come with a desperate need and desire to find their Jewish voices through prayer. As a people we have a phenomenal music tradition that we can bring into the synagogue and if used correctly, one that can increase participation and invigorate everyone, especially our children. By correctly, I mean by empowering our congregation to find their Jewish voices through music and participation. I have had the great fortune of serving the same vibrant congregation for my entire four years stateside, and it is right in my own community. When I began my time there in 2010, I was blessed with the task of starting a Jr. Choir from the ground up. I felt like I was literally “living” my reason for becoming a cantor: to inspire children to “choose” Judaism and to be vibrant members of their synagogues and Jewish communities for life. It has been amazing to now be officiating the B’nai Mitzvah of the charter members of that choir, and to see how they have grown so beautifully as Jewish adults who are excited to lead their congregation not only during their B’nai Mitzvah service, but also to be leaders in the synagogue long after their B’nai Mitzvah celebrations. Many have joined the youth group, some are now serving as student members of the synagogue board, many go to Jewish summer camps and lead T’filah there, and some have even told me that they would like to become cantors or rabbis.

How did this happen? I believe it is simple. Every child longs not only to be accepted by their teachers and leaders, but also to be loved by them unconditionally, and encouraged to feel empowered in whatever it is the teacher is teaching them. As their student cantor, I made it my business always to shower them with love and encouragement. I literally endeavor to love them as if they are my own children. They participated in my daughter’s Baby Naming and my son’s Bris. I invited them to my daughter’s first birthday party and nearly all of them showed up along with their parents, for whom I provided food and drinks, allowing them a time for finding community and getting to know one another. It was so amazing, because that part of it happened unconsciously. In a few weeks, I am giving a party for the parents to thank them for all of their efforts in making the choir such a success. I make a conscious effort to make choir fun, and not a chore. During rehearsals, I let them be kids and have fun instead of taking it too seriously, and we often share stories, many of which are about their past or upcoming trips to Israel, and my own stories about my time in Israel. I turn no one away from the Jr. Choir, even if they believe that they cannot sing. Those kids are now the strongest leaders in the choir—they are often the people to whom I give solos. It has been such a gift to be able to watch how they thrive as human beings and as Jews. Today, there are 40 members of the TBJ Jr. Choir, Keshet. I have one family of five kids who are in the choir, two of whom are not Jewish but whose stepfather and three step siblings are Jewish. They are two of my most loyal members, and love singing in Hebrew and learning about the prayers. When given the choice to either go to church or synagogue, they both chose synagogue because of the community of the Jr. Choir. Two other students made up a rap about their positive experiences with the Jr. Choir. One of the lines is “Cantor Susie helped me find my inner Jew.” That rap means more to me than any song I have ever heard.

When I first began my internship at this congregation, it was like pulling teeth to get the students to sing and participate in T’filah. There were close to 200 students each week who sat there, looking bored out of their minds, expecting to be sung at rather than participate. In my four years there, the landscape has changed tremendously. I always affirm how excited and honored I am to be there with them each week, and I offer them the opportunity to lead individual prayers with the microphone and with me accompanying them on guitar. They were actually craving this kind of attention and opportunity to be leaders and almost all of them took it very seriously. Today, the Sunday T’filah service is almost entirely student lead, with either one student or a group of students leading each rubric. Giving them this opportunity to “strut their stuff” has empowered them to sing, and given them a feeling of ownership over the prayers, and participation has increased tremendously. It is finally now at the point that I can merely accompany them on my guitar and they will do the singing. Each week, students express an interest in joining Jr. Choir or Jr. Youth group. It has been such an incredible blessing in my life to be given the opportunity to help them find their Jewish voices. My goal is for them to feel the freedom and courage to pray with these Jewish voices for their entire lives, no matter where their lives take them. I am so grateful that I am having some small part in helping them to realize that they possess it.

I believe that it is my job as a prayer leader to take each prayer, imagine how it has applied to me personally, and to pray it myself, “b’chol l’vav’cha” (with my whole heart), modeling the prayer for my congregants, inviting them to take part in any way they are comfortable. As a cantor it is also my duty to help guide my congregation to their own individual ways of finding God in their lives, whether it is through texts, music, Tikkun Olam, or any other means. Even though I am very passionate about my belief in God, I know that I must be sensitive to many others who do not share this belief, who question God’s existence, or who do not believe whatsoever. It is my job as their clergy to listen to them, pray for and with them, and to guide them to ways which will help them find God if that is their desire. If not, then it is my job to help them connect to their Judaism, and to help them find ways to make their Judaism relevant in their lives through more secular means such as Tikkun Olam or through Israel. I have strong personal ties, friendships, and family in Israel, and as a cantor, I also want to help guide my congregation to finding their own love and relationship with Israel.

I believe that sharing my personal experiences and owning them can help others to find their own ways to God and I will continue to do this when called upon. Ultimately, I have a great love for all of my congregants—I believe that as clergy, we are to model the love that God has for us to the best of our abilities. It is my prayer that God will guide me to help all of my congregants, young and old, to find their own spirituality and paths to God, and that ultimately, I can help to inspire all of them to be “Jews by Choice”.