Being a Cantor under the pandemic

For Our Congregation -June 2020

By Cantor Paul Heller

When asked by the editors of Our Cong (our Synagogue magazine) to share my experiences in the last months of lockdown, this came to my mind.

In the introduction to my own homepage I wrote a while ago:
In the last 25 years I have used Internet as a tool of information. I have evolved from my first webpage to offer services in translations and my blog where I have published posts on my thoughts on Tikkun Olam, Bioethics and Music Therapy and information on Jewish experience and dynamics of attitude and behaviour regarding Israel and Judaism.” I also have used my Cantorial, language and IT skills to create a Cantorial webpage and many videos to share in YouTube and only my traditional Kol Nidrei has attracted over 9. 000 views.

It’s good to know I am not alone out there. Much like other cantors have been quickly adapting to a life-based online, with Zoom and Livestream platforms to continue our congregational life. I am part of the Cantors Assembly and of a large group of Latin American Cantors and we all share our experiences, there are some that have professional programs to produce high-quality videos, which I am far from mastering. ‘Cantor’ also means now, social media expert. And thanks to my endeavors in IT and Internet I didn’t have to start from scratch.
As my colleague Cantor Rayna Green from Illinois, in a recent article published in The Forward said:
“I miss the sound of our congregational voice, growing in strength and grandeur as our sacred melodies transport us to new spiritual heights”.
I can say I also miss the Sanctuary filled with the music of our Choir and organ and hearing the voices of our members accompany us in the familiar tunes Belsize is so well known for.
But I have been very busy these three months thank God, putting together the seven years archived Livestream services to continue our common work while keeping our services as close as usual, as suggested by the executive of BSS since mid-March. I had the joy to put together a virtual seder with many families and children singing to bring to our tables the explanations of the Rabbi, for Yom Haatzmaut the blessing for the State of Israel with 13 members of our junior Youth Choir, creating a video for Izkor Shavuot with the recordings from our CDs. For the Tikkun Leil Shavuot I invited 12 colleagues from all over the world to sing Hallel parts. Not only the pleasure it brought me to put this online for our congregation but some of it is in our Youtube channel to share with the larger community.
But also the distressing part of the last three months is having to officiate all the funerals for the Synagogue, thank God not many Covid related.. But to only have family members attending and the respect that should be given to the deceased, an important mitzvah missed, since nobody else could participate, very saddening. I look forward to a time of a memorial to be held with families and friends for all those departed.
I really am also counting the days to not stand anymore on my own at the Bimah leading our Livestream Kabbalat Shabbat services, but to have you all back in the Sanctuary and hear all the voices joining the congregational singing with our Choir and organ, I miss so much. But if it wasn’t for the amazing support from our lay leadership and from all of you who have approached me in giving me the strength to continue to do so, I would not have been able to. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Also during the pandemic, which lasted for me another year and two lockdowns since the above-mentioned article was written, many more editing of archived services, bnei mitzvah online, readings shared on screen and sermons had to be published. But also since luckily I had met the Cuban pianist Edelsa Santana, while singing concerts in Colombia in four occasions, every time I was invited to participate in local events. She then kindly during this last year 2020/2021 offered whilst we were both in lockdown in different countries, to record piano backtracks which I merged with my singing and the new digital skills acquired, to create Songs of the Heart II, that can be listened in digital platforms.

Here is a link to Spotify, Amazon music and my Youtube channel, press the images to listen, also you can now listen to my first CD Songs of the Heart and some Schubert Lieder available, in digital form.

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