ACC Spotlight: Cantor Juval Porat

Cantor Juval Porat is the Cantor at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, CA

You had an unusual, international childhood. Tell us about your youth and young adulthood.

I pretty much spent my primary years shuffling between Israel and Germany until I moved to the United States in 2009. This included studying at an elementary school in Israel, a secular high school in Germany, a yeshiva in Israel (where I boarded and went by myself) and then studying at university in Germany. On the downside, I never got to really ever grow roots in one place. On the upside, it allowed me to expand my horizon and to be reminded of the importance of cultural diversity and how we can learn from one another, which allows us to facilitate collaboration and cooperation. I think my curiosity for traveling and making friends all over the world stems from this time of moving back and forth and realizing that we’re all connected in our humanity, even though we’re from different backgrounds, each of us holding our own individual truths.

The cantorate is your second career. Please share with us a little about your initial career as an architect in Berlin.

I studied architecture in Aachen, Germany, and then moved to Berlin, mainly because I wanted to live in this city filled with contradictions, history and culture, which is a massive playground for architects and designers. My first job was at an incredible architecture firm right in the heart of the city. Very quickly, while my colleagues where geeking out about design choices, I realized that while I appreciate design, that I didn’t quite have the passion to pursue it. It wasn’t long before I found myself at another crossroads, deciding what to do next.

What led you to become the first cantor to be trained in Germany since World War II?

It wasn’t my plan to become the first [Reform] Cantor to be trained in Germany since World War II - it just so happens that there was no other candidate to apply for the program at the Geiger College, which, although it has been training Reform rabbis for a while, was just in its very early stages of forming a cantorial program.
It was a fascinating time. Both my teachers and myself were trying to figure out what a cantorial program might look like and our visions did not always overlap. It fills me with a certain amount of pride to know that I took part in the creation process of the cantorial school, which has only expanded and become more and more established. I just recently returned from the college’s first alumni conference, which was a wonderful way of catching up with my teachers and former classmates.

You are the cantor at Beth Chayim Chadashim in LA, the world’s first synagogue founded by, and with an outreach to, lesbians and gay men. What led you to Beth Chayim Chadashim – and they to you?

In another serendipitous turn of events, I ran into the president of BCC in Berlin, during the Berlin Movie Festival. He let me know that they were looking for a cantor. I was in my final year of school and I interviewed with the search committee via Skype. I was invited over to be part of the clergy team during the High Holidays and to meet with the community and the choir, and soon afterwards was offered the opportunity to serve BCC. I never dreamed of serving a congregation in the United States, let alone such a historically significant congregation as Beth Chayim Chadashim. So much of my cantorate and the person I am today is due to my relationship with - and the privilege of serving this unique and sacred community. While BCC was founded by and for lesbians and gay men it is important to note that today it serves all who want to be part of its communal life where we search for ways to model, find and provide a Judaism that is authentic, accessible, relatable and open to all who seek it.

Tell us more about your exciting work at Beth Chayim Chadashim. What initiatives are you especially proud of?

There’s a lot to be proud of. Personally, I’m very happy that BCC is such a singing and musical congregation, allowing me to really play with repertoire, which I get to frame and contextualize each week at services by myself, with my clergy partners, choir and guest musicians. I’m proud to know that back in the 1970s, at a time when most temples (including Reform ones) still used male language for God, BCC created the first prayer book with degenderized language. I’m proud of our LEED certified building in Los Angeles, of our Chizuk Chiyuvi Support group for people living with HIV, the sense of safety and ease with which our trans members celebrate their transition publicly and the way our same-sex couples celebrate their anniversaries. I’m proud of our engagement with grassroots organizations and scholars from Israel on LGBTQ issues. I’m proud of our religious school, which has been going through a blessed growth in children and their parents - unlike many other models, both parents and children stay all throughout religious school for study and to form connections. I’m proud to know that “L’chi Lach” premiered at BCC and was co-written by a BCC member.

I’m proud to know that BCC was the first congregation to be officially visited by Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he took the role of presidency of the URJ. I’m proud to know that BCC was asked to provide a template script using Mishkan Hanefesh, while the machzor was still in development. I’m proud of the openness by which the congregation experiences experimental elements in our worship, such as a dance meditation, mindfulness practices, the use of instrumental music as a tool of worship and invitations to make oneself vulnerable. I’m proud of being one of the first communities who’ve provided live streaming of our services and various other events. Oh, and I’m not sure my Drag persona would be able to make an appearance anywhere else but BCC during Purim season.

I understand you initiated a Cantors Concert that we can catch on YouTube. Tell us more about that?

Back in 2011, when BCC moved into its new building, I produced a fundraiser concert for my congregation. It was the first time I got to collaborate with cantors from all over LA. The theme of the concert was “Home” and I invited each participant to provide a musical gift on that topic. It’s a lot of fun to be involved in such a project and a great way to learn new repertoire. Since then I’ve been lucky to produce some more concerts with colleagues and fabulous Jewish and nonJewish musicians and singer/songwriters on various topics, not always Jewish per se, but most definitely always with some sort of message on the human condition, which, I guess, is altogether very Jewish.

What do you like to do for fun?

Next to baking, cooking, hiking with my dog and spending time with friends and family, I love writing and recording music. I guess recording music more than writing it, because there’s just something extremely fulfilling, after having spent a day in the studio with a producer, in having a sound coming out of the speakers that wasn’t there at the beginning of the day. To be in the “zone” of the creative process and the excitement of sharing it with others brings me a lot of joy. Unlike my first two albums, one in which I was wearing my “cantor” hat, and the other, in which I was wearing my “singer/songwriter” hat, I’ve been blending both aspects of my creativity in an album, which I hope to release early next year. I used to think that I should keep the “secular” separate from the “sacred” or “religious” and it took me a while to realize that it takes the blending of all those different parts of our identities to fully accept the wholeness of us all.