In memory of Cantor Jodi Schechtman, z'l
I can’t remember the exact year that I met Jodi. We served together on the Joint Commission for Worship, Music and Religious Living – lovingly referred to as “WMRL,” by those of us who attended those meetings. We also served together on the ACC Executive Board – but she had already been a Board member for a couple of years before I came onto the Board.
What I do remember are my two first – and lasting – impressions of Jodi: First, she was extremely articulate, incredibly thoughtful, and clearly passionate about the work of the American Conference of Cantors and the Cantorate itself. Second, you always knew where Jodi was in the room due to the loud peals of laughter that surrounded wherever she was sitting. If Jodi had not found her way to the cantorate, she could have made a career in stand-up comedy.
Jodi asked me to speak today about her work with the ACC. I am privileged, and humbled, to have the opportunity to do so. I think it is safe to say that she is one of a small handful of cantors who have left a profound mark on our profession.
Jodi’s first work for the ACC was as Chair of the ACC Development Committee. As with pretty much everything she did, she was very successful – increasing our fundraising by 25% while she held that position. Her truly significant work for the ACC, however, probably began with a letter written to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, during the time that he served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Once upon a time, you see, when anyone in a public forum spoke about Jewish leadership, the word they always used was, “Rabbi.” We cantors would hear this over and over at each Biennial or other important meeting, and we would grumble to ourselves: “Can’t someone ever mention cantors?” Jodi, however, was never one to sit quietly by. And so, in 2002, she wrote a letter to Rabbi Yoffie, in which she explained the important leadership work that cantors do, and suggested that in the future, he might include cantors when he discussed congregational leadership. The letter was top form Jodi: strongly worded, yet respectful and polite; eloquent, but to the point.
It was probably because of that letter, that Jodi was asked to serve on the ACC Board. When I came onto the Board a year or two later, I was immediately struck by Jodi’s keen intelligence and her ability to speak truth to power in a respectful way. The more I watched and listened, the more I learned. As we served together on WMRL, I was able to watch Jodi interact with people from many different walks of life. She was collegial and thoughtful in her discussions with our rabbinic colleagues, she was enthusiastic and supportive of the lay leaders in the room, and she always managed to remind everyone – in a good way – of the importance of the cantorate to the subject matter at hand.
In the years 2005-2007, the ACC embarked on the work of restructuring our organization. As a result of that restructure, three new positions were created: Managing Director, Director of Member Support, and Director of Organizational Partnerships. The Conference had not yet hired Rachel Roth, now our COO, to be our Managing Director. Gail Hirschenfang was hired as Director of Member Support. The question was: who had the requisite political and diplomatic skill set to function as our Director of Organizational Partnerships?
It was during this transition in our structure that I became president of the ACC. I knew that – living in California – I was going to need someone who could be, “Boots on the ground,” so to speak, in New York. Someone who could speak truth to power with politeness and respect. Someone who had consummate diplomatic skills, but never beat around the bush. Jodi was the very obvious choice.
Because Jodi was the person liasing to the CCAR, HUC and the URJ in person – remember, we only had phones and email in those days – Jodi and I were on the phone together a lot. If an issue came up that had to be addressed, Jodi made the time to get to New York to speak with the necessary people.
It was on the first of many such trips to New York in 2008 that Jodi sat down with Rabbi Yoffie, face to face, for the first time. What did he say? “It’s good to get to know the person behind that letter.” Remember the letter? 2002? This was 6 years later! When I said that the letter made a lasting impression, I was not exaggerating.
Lest you think, however, that Rabbi Yoffie held any part of that letter against Jodi, that was never the case (respectful and polite, remember?). Jodi and Eric developed a strong friendship and collegiality over the years. In fact, developing relationships was one of Jodi’s superpowers: there have been – and still are – many in URJ leadership positions around North America who think of Jodi as a dear friend. I know that she thought of each of those individuals – and I wish I could name all of you today – in the same way.
As our Director of Organizational Partnerships, Jodi was instrumental in bringing the ACC forward, and getting us a seat at the table. She did this by building relationships. She did this by modeling excellence and diplomacy. She did this through her intelligence and drive to be a force for good. Here is just some of what Jodi was instrumental in doing for the ACC:
Through the relationships that Jodi built with the leadership at HUC, the ACC president was asked – for the first time ever – to speak at Ordination and Investiture services (yes, we were still invested then – more on that later) at Temple Emanu-El in New York. Since that president was I, and I could not make the trip from California, I asked Jodi to speak in my stead. The words she prepared were strong and beautiful – and much better than anything I would have come up with. I was so glad that she was the first.
When Jodi and I attended Executive Committee meetings of the URJ Board, at the first few meetings we attended people would ask us, “Why are you here? Is there going to be a concert?” Jodi continued to build relationships. By the end of my presidency, people at the Executive Committee meetings not only understood the importance of our attendance, but they also asked us to deliver sermons or d’rashes during Board services, and they complained if cantors were left out of important discussions. When Jewish leadership was invoked, we started to hear the word, “Clergy.”
In 2006, two then HUC students brought up the idea that cantors should be ordained, and not invested, as clergy. Jodi heard them. She began to have discussions with the folks at HUC about this matter. The discussions took on more momentum under the ACC presidency of Cantor Susan Caro. As always, Jodi was our boots on the ground. She met with then HUC President, Rabbi David Ellenson. She spoke with Rabbi Rick Sarason at HUC in Cincinnati. She garnered support from HUC faculty and students alike. Jodi did her homework – thorough as always. She explained everything that we as cantors do – which, of course, the HUC faculty already knew. They knew that we engage in pastoral work, in celebrating and mourning with our congregants during times of lifecycle, in teaching, and preaching and all the other activities of clergy. What Jodi helped people understand, was that by calling us, “Invested,” instead of, “Ordained,” HUC was putting roadblocks in the way - keeping us from doing our sacred work. In some states we were not allowed to perform weddings. In some places we could not visit congregants in prison, or jail. Jodi’s passion and eloquence led directly to the decision made by Rabbi Ellenson to ordain cantors graduating from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. The following year, the term,“Ordination” was applied retroactively to all of us who had been, “Invested.”
Jodi could also speak truth to the power that is the membership of the ACC. The Religious Action Center was one of the final places where Jewish leadership always seemed to be termed, “Rabbi.” Jodi talked to the folks at the RAC, and they essentially said, “Rabbis show up to do this work. Cantors not so much.” Jodi came back to us at the ACC and let us know – loud and clear – that it was up to us to make a change. Today, cantors attend the Consultation on Conscience in large numbers. We engage with the RAC through learning, as well as teaching. We attend marches and protests when called upon. Jodi got us to show up in real numbers, and today at the RAC, when they talk about Jewish leadership, they talk about rabbis and cantors. They talk about clergy.
After her position as ACC Director of Organizational Partnerships ended, Jodi came back onto the ACC Board as a regular Board member. She continued to contribute her time and talent to the ACC, until her illness made it impossible for her to do so.
What a powerhouse that woman was! Every cantor in the ACC owes her a great debt.
And yet – she would never have seen it that way. She was doing work that she loved to do. Being a cantor – being an ACC cantor – and ensuring a strong, successful ACC cantorate – was as natural to her as breathing and singing.
Jodi, my dear, dear friend. I will always be grateful for your work on behalf of the ACC. I will treasure the memories of our work together. I will remember dinners, and meetings, and drinks, and more meetings, and hotel after hotel after hotel. But - what I will remember most of all - are those peals of laughter that followed you wherever you would go.
I love you, my friend, and I will miss you forever.
Cantor Kay Greenwald
ACC Director of Placement