Every day you hear about a 100th anniversary commemorating this or that. It’s the smaller blocks of time though – the decades or quarter-centuries – that truly impact us.
With all the celebrations of her 32-year career at Congregation Beth Israel over the past nine months and with preparations for a final party in late June, Cantor Judith Blanc Schiff hasn’t had much time to fully assess the impact she has had on her Jewish community. As the end of her tenure nears, Schiff pauses to reflect on the impact she has made, and the role she defined as CBI’s first full-time cantor.
Schiff credits the good fortune she’s enjoyed to finding a career path that allowed her to “combine everything I love and am good at.” She was also in the right place at the right time: New York City in the early 1970s. Shifting cultural and societal trends in Judaism and the world at large – particularly the influence of the women’s movement – opened the cantorate to women for the first time. While studying for her master’s in music in New York, Schiff bumped into a friend who suggested she think about the cantorate; the idea intrigued her.
“I didn’t know women could do that,” Schiff recalls. “It was not an option that had ever occurred to me before, perhaps because of my own assumption that cantors were men.” In 1975, the cantorate offered Schiff the unprecedented opportunity to combine her love of synagogue music with teaching and singing as a member of the clergy. She entered the cantorial studies program at Hebrew Union College in New York in the fall of 1975. “When I had my interview at HUC, the rabbi said, ‘We’ll agree to train you, but we won’t guarantee to find you a job.’ Of course, we [the female cantorial students] all found jobs.” During her five-year program, Schiff also met her husband, composer David Schiff, a member of the music faculty at HUC.
When David was hired to teach at Reed College in 1980, newly ordained Cantor Schiff began looking for work in Portland. Through professional connections, Schiff was introduced to Rabbi Emanuel Rose, then senior rabbi at CBI, and he flew to New York to audition Schiff.
“They’d never had a cantor at Beth Israel,” says Schiff, which surprised her since Beth Israel founded in 1858 is Oregon’s oldest Jewish congregation. Schiff’s original part-time cantor job eventually became full-time, and Schiff acknowledges her luck at landing what became her only job after graduation. “It’s been wonderful to be in one place for so long; I enjoy the sense of continuity.”
Schiff’s career has coincided with many significant changes in the way Reform Jews approach their manner of worship. “The congregation was not a singing congregation when I came,” she explains. “It was much more formal, as were most congregations at that time. Today our music is much less formal, except on High Holidays.”
Beginning in the 1970s, Reform congregational music transitioned from a classically trained solo cantor, accompanied by organ or chorus, to a fusion of many styles, including more participatory forms of music making. Schiff has adjusted to many shifts in worship preferences over the years, and has embraced change as an integral part of her work.
“Style of worship is always changing. What works for one setting doesn’t necessarily work for another. I think it’s great to have so much inclusion, but finding the balance for your congregation is important.” Schiff also notes, somewhat wryly, that she’s worked with four different editions of the Reform prayer book during her career. “With each edition, more traditional liturgy is included, so new prayer settings are needed.”
Part of Schiff’s role as cantor, as she defines it, is to make Jewish people more self-confident and self-sufficient, whether that means learning to chant Hebrew to lead services or learning to bake challah for Shabbat dinner. “It’s wonderful to have congregants who can read Torah, to democratize that function. I really like making people feel comfortable knowing what to do and how to do it. When they have those tools, they can worship anywhere, in any synagogue.”
Schiff particularly enjoys preparing students for b’nai mitzvah. “I love watching the kids develop over that one year between age 12 and 13, and I’ve been in my position so long that I’ve taught children of my first students. I’m very proud of helping to raise the Hebrew literacy at CBI, not just with the kids, but also among the adults, especially for women who’d never had a bat mitzvah, or people who are Jews by choice. It’s a great legacy for me.”
Schiff will extend that legacy even after she steps down. She plans to continue teaching b’nai mitzvah students and adult education classes on a part-time basis, and she’s also looking forward to doing some learning of her own. “There are a lot of classes I want to take, and I have many hobbies – I knit, I love to cook, I have a garden. I also want to get my computer skills up to date.” She’ll also be able to accompany David more often for his out-of-town lectures.
So what does Judith Schiff take away from her 32 years at CBI? For all who know her, it comes as no surprise that she’s full of gratitude for time well spent, doing meaningful work. “I’ve been blessed to have a wonderful career in a wonderful place, being able to use the gifts that I have to sing and teach and relate to people.”
Elizabeth Schwartz is a Portland freelance writer.