Cantor Lisa Levine is a graduate of U.C.I. and received her Master’s Degree in Sacred Music from HUC-JIR DFSSM and her Doctorate Honorius Causa from HUC-JIR DFSSM in 2014 for 25 years of service. She is currently the cantor at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD.
In what capacity have you volunteered for the ACC?
I was on the board for ten years mainly working in the area of fund raising and finances. I was one of the co- editors of the ACC Lifecycle Manual, and I was also instrumental in commissioning the ACC Ketubah. Early on in my career, I co-chaired an ACC Convention in Houston, TX. Recently I’ve been on the ACC Website committee.
How did you get started with your Volunteer work? Did someone ask you?
I read an email that said the ACC was looking for Board Members. I volunteered and ended up staying for a decade. I always wanted to be involved in helping support those in leadership and a few of my closest friends have been leaders. When they asked, I always said yes!
What do you see as the biggest challenge to the Cantorate today and in the future?
The economy and decline in the commitment to support full time cantors with the same equality as other clergy. I see congregations turning to part-time cantors, soloists, un-ordained clergy (both rabbis and cantors). Our congregations are strapped and stressed monetarily. I think it’s important to be flexible. We can’t go into a stressed market place and make unrealistic demands. I serve a wonderful congregation in a community that I love. Like everyone, we have had our share of financial challenges and I’ve graciously taken pay-cuts and freezes and less benefits. I still feel fairly compensated for the work that I do. I also feel well respected and am given a lot of flexibility in my schedule that allows me to study and pursue my hobbies and home life. I believe that we all need to find creative ways to stay with our congregations when things get tough. I also believe that the future of the cantorate will depend on our ability to be resourceful. For example, I take on extra work performing concerts, Artist-in-Residencies, selling merchandise and teaching in various organizations around my community. I also try to keep writing and creating and am currently in the Aleph Rabbinic Pastoral Program which will give me the skills I need to expand my work when I retire. HUC-JIR DFSSM is also important to the future of the Cantorate. Attracting, funding and graduating qualified cantors in the future will be of paramount importance. The new director of the School, Richard Cohn is already off to a great start beginning to fund raise, with our help, in order to assist and recruit young people who may not be able to afford to attend cantorial school. I believe this will be our biggest challenge in the future: we must continue to fund the HUC-JIR-DFSSM to enable young people to become cantors.
What influenced you to become a cantor?
It was a calling. I started as a folk singer when I was about 8 years old and developed into a solo and choral singer in High School. I was a vocal performance major at UCI and had been singing a lot of Opera and Handel’s Messiah’s solos, Bach Oratorios and other Christian choral music through years of classical training. Of course, early on, Debbie Friedman was a major influence. She was my song leader at UAHC Camp Swig for 5 summers. I was also a NFTY song leader and always taught in synagogues wherever I lived. I guess I performed one Messiah solo too many and I decided that I needed to be true to my calling. I went to Israel to study the language and then applied to HUC and followed my dream to be a Hazzan. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so I had a lot of hurdles to jump: financial and others. Moving from west to east coast to attend grad school made me the pioneer in my family. I felt like it was always the thing I wanted to do, and now here I am twenty-six years later. I still love it. I still love my job. I love my students and my colleagues and my holy work. I feel blessed to be able to do what I do!
Tell us something about yourself that you’d like to share that we may not know about you.
I’m a master gardener. I have a very large garden with many many vegetables and herbs. I love to grow things and I like to cook things! I grew up in the southern San Juaquin Valley town of Bakersfield and we always had veggies to put into jars. So today I still love to put things into jars. I just put up 2 dozen jars of pepper jelly this past week. They’ll be holiday gifts for the staff. I also canned some pear butter from our pear and apple trees. I love to work the land and spend time sowing seeds, nurturing them and watching them grow. Gardening is like life: sometimes things turn out great and sometimes you just start over. Either way, for me, a dirt manicure is the way to go!