parashat korach 5781
By Student Cantor Gabe Snyder, Delivered on June 11, 2021
I feel blessed and honored to have had the opportunity to join this community in song, in learning, and in prayer. Whether on Friday evenings, in the building or in a Zoom box, at Shabbat morning services or text study, havdallah with the teens, t’fillah with Yachad, or holiday celebrations, Hevreh has constantly and consistently reminded me of why I chose to pursue the cantorate — connection. Whenever I could hear voices singing, or see mouths moving on Zoom, I could feel that our community was connected; when, at Shabbat morning text study, I listened to discussions turn into debates turn into discovery, I could feel that our community was connected; when I learned something new about being a cantor or just about myself, I could feel that connection.
I could go on about the myriad ways in which this community has moved me, be it this gorgeous setting or this warm community or the musicality and alacrity of the congregation or the wonderful mentors I’ve had — and I’m sure, will continue to have — in Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Gordon. But what I want to suggest is that everything you need to know about being a great cantor can be found in my favorite place: Tot Shabbat.
Being a cantor is not about giving a lovely, flawless performance. The bima is not a stage, the congregation is not an audience, and a prayer is not an aria. At no place is this more true than Tot Shabbat. If you’re the only one putting ridiculous ingredients into the pot and stirring it up ’til it’s nice and hot, you’re not doing tot shabbat correctly. If you’re towering up above the kids — even if you’re relatively short — you’re not doing tot shabbat correctly. It’s all about connecting with the kids and the parents, not performing for them, but leading them in song with warmth and joy. A good cantor can’t take themselves too seriously — sometimes they need to put on footie pajamas or sit on the floor.
Here’s the thing: different people come to the synagogue with different needs. At Tot Shabbat, we have a wide range of needs. Any person who’s ever worked with or really even met children will tell you that a one-year-old is very different from a four-year-old. The older kids can generally do a little bit more, and they need more interactive songs and activities to keep them engaged and enjoying their time. They can handle more words and they like to be challenged by going faster and faster and having hand motions to go along with the songs. It’s for those kids that we sing songs like “Put Some Chicken in the Pot.” But for the younger kids, especially the youngest ones, the goal isn’t necessarily to get them singing and dancing — some of them can’t yet. We want to get them laughing and seeing Judaism as something fun and exciting and happy for them. For them, we sing songs about silly Shabbat Dinosaurs who love celebrating Shabbat but just get a little confused sometimes. And still there’s a third group: the parents, especially new parents, looking for ways to bring Jewish life into their homes, and that can be as simple as saying, “Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God.”
One last Tot Shabbat observation: You don’t need to make things elaborate or complicated to make meaning. The Tot Shabbat favorite, hands down, from the youngest kids to the grandparents that accompany them, is Bim Bam. The whole song has five words, and two of them aren’t even real words: “Bim, Bam, Shabbat, Shalom, Hey.” With those five words, we create a community in our circle of toddlers and their grown-ups, coming together in song, celebrating Shabbat.
To sum up, there’s a line from one more Tot Shabbat song that comes to mind: “Hal’l’lal’lal’lelujah, wave hello, and say ‘Shalom.’” Hevreh is and always will be an integral part of who I am as a Jewish leader and a Jewish person. To that, I say “Hallelujah,” and to all of the community, here and on Zoom and beyond, I don’t say goodbye, but rather, “Shalom Hevreh.”