Cantor Lippitz at a recent morning minyan at Oheb Shalom Congregation. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
SidebarLippitz to be feted
January 31, 2008
When Cantor Erica Lippitz arrived at Oheb Shalom Congregation, the clergy wore robes — black on Shabbat, white on holidays. She liked it that way.
“I didn’t want someone looking at my hemline. I didn’t want sexuality to interfere with people’s perception of me. I wanted people to get past the woman part and see me as a professional,” she said.
She doesn’t wear a robe anymore all the time, nor does she need one to hide behind. After 20 years, she has earned her place, as herself, on the bima.
As a recent morning minyan came to an end, Lippitz stayed in the chapel in her striking royal-blue tallit, with matching kipa. She wore a blue silk pantsuit and white turtle neck adorned with a beaded necklace. Congregants gathered around her to chat, to ask a question, to relate who is in the hospital and who has recovered.
An observer can see how tightly woven she is into the fabric of the congregation and how small gestures — like not dashing out of the minyan to her office for a meeting — mean so much to the congregation.
It wasn’t always that way. Twenty years ago, she was not only the congregation’s new cantor, but together with Marla Barugel, she was the first woman invested as a cantor by the Conservative movement.
She was also young. “I was 29 years old! I looked like someone’s daughter, someone’s niece, someone’s girlfriend,” she said. She had to prove that she could be a professional not only because of her gender, but “they had to get past the young part.”
As Lippitz prepares to celebrate two decades as the cantor at her South Orange congregation (see sidebar), she realizes that even being hired at Oheb Shalom in 1987 was nothing short of revolutionary. And she sees how she has matured into her role, even changed what it means to be a cantor.
When considering her candidacy, the congregation, proud of its history as a leader in the movement, was impressed with Lippitz’ knowledge of liturgy and her education. “Once we came to the conclusion that she was the best candidate, we had to have a real down-to-earth conversation about how the congregation would accept her because it was precedent-setting,” said Sam Weinstock, then congregation president.
Everyone credits the synagogue’s religious leader at the time, Rabbi Alexander Shapiro, with smoothing the way for her. “He was very forward thinking; he was a visionary,” said Weinstock.
For women like Linda Willner, sisterhood president when Lippitz arrived, it was a breakthrough moment. “Having women as a role model for our young people was very important. It was a wonderful step and I was in favor of it. I also felt it opened up a whole new pool of people to lead our synagogues and lead the movement,” she said.
No one left the congregation. But some of the older generation, like Milton “Mickey” Eisenberg, frowned on the decision. When she started, said Lippitz, he refused to come to morning minyan.
Lippitz recalled, with tears in her eyes, the end of her first Rosh Hashana service at Oheb Shalom in 1987. “Mickey raced up to the bima to hug me, in view of the entire congregation. That symbolized everything,” she said.
‘Huge, huge changes’
Erica Jan Lippitz grew up in Chicago at both Conservative and Reform congregations. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she decided to become a Jewish communal worker with a focus on work as a Hillel director and got a master’s degree from Brandeis. It took her a few years — and a few job offers as a cantorial soloist — to consider studying to becoming a cantor, notwithstanding the knowledge that she wouldn’t be officially recognized.
“Once I was absolutely sure this is what the Holy One wanted me to do with this gift, I knew the giver would give me a place to do it also,” she said.
She was not aware, at the time she applied to the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1983, at the age of 24, that the Conservative movement was already considering the question of ordaining women; nor did she realize then that she would become a pioneer for Conservative women in the cantorate. But when it happened, she was thrilled.
She was delighted that Rabbi Morton Leifman, then dean of JTS’ cantorial school, was “unfazed” by a woman coming in. She pointed out that she and Barugel were not the first women to complete the program in the cantorial school. Others, like Linda Shivers, who was several years ahead of them, and Elaine Shapiro, more than a decade ahead, had gone through the program; it’s just that Lippitz and Barugel were there at the right moment.
Lippitz, in a way, was groomed for the role. She came from a family of strong women. One of her grandmothers became an attorney in 1923. Unable to find “serious” work as an attorney, she ultimately turned to training women for leadership roles and campaigning for women to have aliyot and be counted in the minyan in the Conservative movement.
Today, she said, she is thrilled to be a part of history and to be an eyewitness to the changing roles of women in Judaism.
“I’m proud to be a conduit of women’s consciousness,” she said.
Lippitz said she believes that women as clergy have changed the field. When she started, she said, she wondered, “Will I teach differently from a man? Will I counsel differently?” Today, she believes people seek her out more because she is a woman; and she believes there is more consensus building in the field.
“Women, by nature and cultural training are attentive to relationships and have brought that element of the work of the hazan into sharp focus. There are probably more women hazanot counseling a greater percentage of time than their male counterparts. We are sought out because we are open to issues of counseling and building relationships.”
Despite all of the hurdles she overcame, she acknowledged she was unprepared for one that had nothing to do with gender and everything to do with relationships: the sudden death of Rabbi Alexander Shapiro in 1992. By then, her husband, Rabbi John Schechter, was serving as assistant rabbi at the congregation.
Shapiro “was a leader among rabbis for all the right reasons — for his integrity, for his compassion, for his great heart and for his great insights. We knew how fortunate we were to be working with someone who could teach us so much and model what a professional could be. His untimely passing was an enormous blow. When John and I helped the congregation through the transition afterward was when our deepest relationships within the congregation were forged,” she said.
Through it all, she managed to balance work and family. (She has three children, Gabriel, 18; Eliana, 13; and Lev, 12.)
In addition to her work at the synagogue, her singing group, Beged Kefet, performs nationally and has made three recordings. She has sung in various choirs and is a cofounder, with Cantor Perry Fine, of the JTS Cantorial Alumni Association’s Shir Joy Choral Festival and is a regular presenter at the North American Choral Festival. She is cofounder and codirector of the Kol Dodi Chorale of MetroWest with her colleague, Cantor Joel Caplan.
Cantor Erica Lippitz, left, and Cantor Marla Barugel, the first two women invested as cantors by the Conservative movement, with Rabbi Morton Leifman, then dean of the Cantors Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary, upon their investiture. Photo courtesy Jewish Theological Seminary
In 2005 Lippitz made her Carnegie Hall debut singing a commissioned work composed by Kenji Bunch, accompanied by the Whitman String Quartet.
Now, as she approaches 50, she said she looks forward to taking on the role of mentoring younger women entering the field, something she has recently taken on. It’s a role she said she “relishes.”
“I want people to remember that a woman wearing a tallit could have been jeered 20 years ago in a congregation,” she said. “A woman would have been discouraged in many congregations from learning more Torah or taking on a greater bima role or lay leadership role. These are huge, huge changes. They are very significant, and they are not going to be turned around.
“I say ‘Sheheheyanu’ on all of them.”
CANTOR ERICA LIPPITZ will be feted for 20 years of service to Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange on Saturday, Feb. 2. The event will also be a celebration of 20 years of women in the cantorate in the Conservative movement. The festivities, featuring performances by the New Jersey Cantors’ Concert Ensemble and Hazamir, are free and open to the public. For more information contact Oheb Shalom at 973-762-7067.