Cantor Devorah Felder-Levy
Tell us about your Jewish background? Do you come from a musical background? Were you always drawn to singing?
I grew up at a Reform synagogue in the suburbs of Chicago. I went to religious school all the way through high school. I was an active member of our youth group and of CFTY (part of NFTY). I attending Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute for 7 summers. I went to Israel at the end of my junior year of high school for two months on Alexander Muss High School in Israel. While in college, I attended a number of college programs at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati and helped plan a couple of regional college retreats with Midwestern hillels.
I was always drawn to singing. I have clear memories of sitting in services and my dad shushing me and the people in front turning around to say "You have a nice voice.” Throughout high school, I participated in choir and some of the shows. My grandmother was a concert pianist and my mother played, too. My mother also sang in our temple choir and when I was eligible to do so I participated in that, as well.
What led you to the cantorate?
There are two things that I say lead me to the Cantorate. One was the only cantor that I had growing up, Steve Sher, who showed me that the role of the cantor was not just on the bima, but was so much more. (Prior to this, my congregation had soloists, including the incredible Cory Winter) It involved teaching and working with kids, directing the choir and pastoral care. The second was the music itself. Growing up in a Chicagoland congregation meant that we were heavily influenced by the music of Max Janowksi. I loved the music. I remember being in awe of it at a young age. And I was pretty sure that my classmates didn’t feel the same way about the music. In addition to the “classical” Jewish music, growing up at camp, I was heavily influenced by the music of Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper and the many other camp songs which are still used today.
You have been the cantor at Shir Hadash since 1996. What do you enjoy the most about your role as cantor? How have you or the role changed over the years?
I have been truly blessed to have been in the same congregation since I graduated from the DFSSM – HUC. What I enjoy the most are the connections that have been built in the congregation. I have had the pleasure of being with families for b’nai mitzvah, confirmation, weddings and baby namings. Seeing families as they grow up in the congregation and being there during all of their life cycles, the happy and the sad, is a true honor. For the last 7 years or so, we have had a preschool and spending time and getting hugs from those preschoolers is a precious way to start any day. And even more precious is to watch some of these kids grow up in the congregation and to still receive those amazing hugs. It is all about the connections.
Over these 20 plus years, my role in the congregation has continued to grow. In addition to being on the bima, I teach both adults and children and direct our choirs. I have had an expanded role in doing pastoral care in our congregation, especially since we do not have an assistant rabbi. I have also had an opportunity over the last four or five years to give a High Holy Day sermon. Last year’s sermon was about enveloping ourselves in Prayer and Tallit and then our choir premiered a song that had been commissioned for my 20th year in the congregation, “Bar’chi Nafshi” written by Itai Shur (Bonia’s son).
You’ve been in California many years but you’re a Chicagoan originally. What vestiges of your Chicago roots remain?
Other than our local hockey team (and maybe basketball), I still root for my favorite Chicago teams. I still love the Bears and the White Sox (and occasionally the Cubs). One of my highlights here was singing the National Anthem at the Oakland A’s game against the White Sox (the White Sox won!). Though I have lived in California for over 20 years now, I think I still call Chicago home. I am lucky enough to still have family there, which means my family gets to go back and visit.
Tell us more about some of your hobbies and interests?
In high school, I played golf and still get out very infrequently. I enjoy exercising and walking and hiking. Shopping is still a favorite thing to do and some of my family enjoys doing that too, which makes it even more fun. One of my favorite things to do is to read, mostly fiction. I like to be carried away in the story.
I enjoy Broadway musicals and having the opportunity to sing Broadway songs in various programs that I might do at the synagogue and in the community.
Most importantly, I enjoy spending time with my family: my husband and our three girls and two dogs.
Cantor Devorah Felder-Levy is Cantor at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California.