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We are thrilled to congratulate Josh Rosenberg on becoming a cantor! Multimedia Producer Madi Goldman sat down with Josh to ask him when he knew he wanted to become a cantor, how his process was different from a traditional journey, and what he’s most excited about. 

TBE: When did you know you wanted to be a cantor?
JR: I perhaps didn’t know for real until the question was thrust upon me. It wasn’t one of the stories where I knew it was what I wanted to do since birth, or I was inspired by some cantor since childhood. My Jewish path is a little more wavy than that. It wasn’t until my secular music profession and my Jewish music profession melded together and I started to go down a path where I was able to use both those sets of skills that I asked myself what’s next. Well, the next set of skills to learn, and how I could best serve the Jewish community, was to become a cantor. And I thought, “No, no, that’s not for me.” 

TBE: Why were you so against the idea?
JR: At the time, I was still fighting a battle in my head as to whether I was a music professional or a Jewish professional, or even a Jewish music professional. Having only come back to an affirmative Jewish practice later in life, I found that the label “Cantor” for me was jarring to my identity. My perception of myself did not match that which I could see of a Cantor-To-Be. It took time to realize that what I wanted to do was be a cantor, but it was hard to want that at that point.

TBE: So when did you feel that shift?
JR: When I started studying, to be fully honest. It was a bit of leaping before I looked, and when I started studying, I realized that using a musical language to serve humans, that was what I wanted to do. All the things I tried to do to try to expand my role as a secular music educator, as a Jewish music educator, all the ways I wanted to expand started creeping into the territory of what a musical clergy member is. So it was only after I started the journey did I realize it was fully for me. 

TBE: What was the process like?
JR: The word traditional is an interesting word in this concept. In a way, the way I learned was very untraditional, and in a way it was actually super traditional. In the liberal Jewish world, the typical path to become a cantor is to go to a formal house of study — Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, a post-graduate institution where you get a Master’s degree and alongside that, you get ordained or get smicha, etc. Along the way, you’re mentored by professionals and constantly learning in a post-graduate setting. That’s relatively new in the Jewish world. The way that cantors used to learn is that you studied with most likely your father (unfortunately it was limited only to males at that time), or your father’s friend or your father’s father’s friend — you would know a guy, you’d study with him, and you’d imitate and observe — and after doing that for a while, your mentor would push you into the world. It was much less formal, it was kind of like “This guy has a nice voice and he knows the prayers, he can do it.” 

This is all to say that the way that I learned was that I was mentored directly by my friends and colleagues and dear mentors at Park Avenue Synagogue, Cantors Azi Schwartz and Rachel Brook. They were the ones who really took me under their wings and taught me not only what to do but also how to keep learning what to do. 

On the other side, the way I actually joined the Cantors Assembly is not so different from joining, say, an Electrician’s Union. There are a series of tests that ask various things about what a cantor would need to know, you study on your own, you’re trained by your mentors, and then you take the tests and when you pass the tests, they say, “Okay, you’ve got what it takes, you can join.” 

TBE: Did it fly by? Was it a long process?
JR: It was shorter than a program at HUC, which is 5 years. I studied for about 3.5 years and I was also completing this while I was working full time and gaining experience in the field at the same time. 

TBE: What can you do now that you couldn’t do before?
JR: In a legal sense, I may now be able to perform religious and civic weddings. Other than that, it’s not so much a barrier to entry so much as it is a barrier to knowledge. This is simply a culmination of my studies. I’m no longer just a guy who can sing nicely. I’m someone who has substance behind the words and knows what he’s doing and also holds himself to a higher standard of behavior and greater professional expectations. It’s an acknowledgment that I have studied but also am continuing to study and serve people musically where they are.

TBE: What does music mean to you?
JR: To me, music has always been a shortcut to the heart. What I’ve found is that music is one of the only things, societally, that can cut through the barriers we spend our whole lives building. We have an attachment to music that transcends language. Language informs music but we can also enjoy musical sounds in a foreign language. We can hear a singer and have no idea what they’re saying or what they mean but still find an emotional connection to it. Our Jewish liturgy is so full of meaning, but it can be hard to access. Music allows us to bypass that and go immediately to the emotion, especially for the people who don’t know what those words mean. When Cantor Zell sings Hashkiveinu in a certain way, it almost doesn’t even matter if you can’t understand the words, you find that emotional connection right there. 

TBE: How will being a cantor enhance your role at TBE? Will it change your role?
JR: I don’t think my role will change much. I think it’s just a matter of pluses. From the moment I got here, I’ve been doing things that are outside my job description. For example, I want to be on the bimah on a Friday night because my wife is on the bimah, so where else would I be? I wanted to participate musically, and TBE quickly let me join and that has nothing to do with my being Director of Young Family Learning and Engagement, but it just became something that I did.

The role that I’ve taken on right now is very much a leadership role; I’m creating new pathways to shalom for newborns through third graders. But having Cantor attached to my name allows the TBE community to see me as one of their leaders, as a person who they can turn to in times of need, as someone who might not be relegated to one segment of the population, but has a voice in all of our Jewish journeys. 

TBE: What are you most excited to do as a cantor?
JR: I’ve always been passionate about liturgy and making liturgy accessible—using any kind of melody to allow access to any person at any age stage. One of the things I’ve brought to TBE is my passion for kids’ services, so my goal with Shabbat services is to create a home for families in this community at every stage of development. I’m excited about creating new opportunities for musical Jewish expression. I’m very, very excited about working toward new holiday programming, intergenerational worship experiences, creating experiential study moments with kids. I’m excited by the fact that if I have Cantor in front of my name, I’m better able to create these types of prayer experiences. 

TBE: How has your community shown up for you during this process?
JR: The first is definitely the most important. Rabbi Vanessa Harper has had to deal with hours upon hours upon hours of throat noises. In a 500-sq-ft Queens apartment, she had to deal with my voice lessons and my practicing nusach. She had to deal with my taking oral tests, playing guitar, doing Zooms for work. She has been my #1 supporter, pick-me-up, and believer in me, more so than myself. I would not be able to succeed without her support. 

Cantors Azi Schwartz and Rachel Brook—they have walked me through every step of this process and gave me a culmination of dreams in the clouds and expectations on the ground, and that has been a really wonderful balance. TBE, and Cantor Zell specifically, have been so welcoming in giving me a chance to make an impact in this space. In other communities, I may not have been welcome to join the clergy team on the bimah. TBE is not that place and I’m very grateful for that. 

TBE: Are you happy?
JR: I can’t say that every single week I’m blissfully happy, especially because of what’s going on right now. I think that the fact that some weeks are hard is because I care so much, and the fact that some weeks are amazing is because other people care so much about me, but overall… Yes, I’m happy and extraordinarily grateful to be here.

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