Divine timing: Called to the Cantorate
By Will Brockman
It was a crisp October morning when I first attended a Shabbat morning service at Holy Blossom – October 29, to be precise. There is one moment that will be etched in my memory forever, and it was Cantors David Rosen and Beny Maissner singing Ben Steinberg z’’l’s setting of “Eilu D’varim.” Somewhere in the middle of listening to their two gorgeous voices sing about these mitzvot we are called to fulfill in order to make the world a better place, a thought crossed my mind – “I want to do that when I grow up.” That thought – the first time I admitted to myself that I had the desire to be a cantor – scared me.
I had moved to Toronto from my home state of New Jersey for a very different reason than to pursue the cantorate. I was and am currently pursuing a Masters at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre, & Performance Studies. During the height of the pandemic, I had transitioned from my previous career as a working actor to teaching drama at the high school I had attended in New Jersey. While there, I discovered I had a love for teaching I never knew about. So, I thought it would be wise to get further qualifications – pursue a Masters, eventually a PhD, and perhaps one day I could teach at university. There was a path I was following; I had a plan. I had no time for diversions. I put away the thought of pursuing the cantorate, and I headed back into my studies at UofT.
A few months later, I travelled to Israel for the first time on Birthright. While there, I had the time of my life travelling with other young Jews. Something clicked for me on that trip, as I started to take stock of what was important to me in my life. Part of me didn’t realize until I had been to Israel, just how important Jewish life and Jewish community was to me. My emotions on that trip forced me to reevaluate the path I was pursuing – the path I had so clearly envisioned for myself. At the Kotel, I slipped a note into the cracks of the Wall asking God to show me, very clearly, what the path is by which I could do the most good in the world. Admittedly, I think I already knew the answer by that point.
I landed at Newark Airport on a frigid January morning, and I emailed Cantor Rosen from my parent’s home in New Jersey. “I want to be a cantor,” I told him, and he immediately scheduled a time for us to meet so we could further discuss the next steps I needed to take to make that a reality. Cantor Rosen connected me with Cantor Jill Abramson, the director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, and the pieces started to fall into place rather easily. I cancelled my pending PhD applications, and I emailed my professors that they would be writing a very different kind of letter of recommendation for me. Cantor Rosen then helped me prepare for my audition by helping me select pieces and then coaching me on those pieces so that I might present my best self to the audition committee at HUC.
A few weeks later, I travelled back home to the States and auditioned for the committee at HUC. I only spent about three short days back in the US, as I had to get back to school at UofT. I flew back to Toronto on a Thursday morning, and I got a call from Cantor Jill Abramson while I was in line about to board my flight back to Toronto. She told me I had been accepted, and a few minutes later, I was back in the air bound for Canada.
Maybe it was being farther away from home, maybe it was simply the right time in my life for me to be ready to receive this calling – I don’t know that I’ll ever know. What I do know is that Holy Blossom Temple is forever a part of the story of why I discovered my calling to the cantorate. For that, I am forever grateful.