BRATTLEBORO—Upon receiving her ordination, Kate Judd will continue her work as spiritual leader of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community (BAJC), but this time as its cantor, as well.
“I converted to Judaism well over a decade ago,” says Judd, a candidate for ordination from the Cantor Educator Program at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass.
As Judd told The Commons in 2013, “Many churches have cantors in place of rabbis, and up until the 20th century, the cantor was seen as more important. They historically led the services.”
“I firmly believe that the music is as important as words of the prayers, and those words don’t get up and into people’s hearts if they’re not sung,” she continued.
When asked how she got from goyim to cantor-to-be, the Brattleboro native recalled a few significant events.
“It was a journey that started when I went with my husband [Robert Miller] to visit his son in Israel,” she said.
“I thought I should know more, so I started reading about Judaism. I was drawn into it, but I didn’t know if I believed in G-d. So, I continued to read and explore,” Judd says.
Judd says the “next important thing that happened” took place in 2002, when she began taking classes with Rabbi Noah Kitty, who formerly led the BAJC.
Rabbi Kitty invited Judd to sing the Kol Nidre at the Yom Kippur services that year. Judd recalled saying to the Rabbi, “But I’m not Jewish. I don’t think I even believe in G-d."
Judd recalls Rabbi Kitty’s response: “Oh, that’s not a problem.”
When Judd sang the Kol Nidre, she says, “In that moment, everything I cared about musically and spiritually lined up and got connected. I was drawn to becoming a cantor.”
A few years later, Judd converted to Judaism, and Rabbi Kitty oversaw her conversion.
“I was dipped in South Pond,” Judd recalls, noting the popular Marlboro swimming spot “is a perfectly kosher mikvah [body of water for ritual immersion], any rabbi would say!”
In 2007, Judd began her studies at Hebrew College, which she describes as “pluralistic: not adhering to one branch of Judaism.” Her ordination as cantor occurs on May 31, at which time she shall also be granted her master’s in Jewish education.
“I’ve been the BAJC’s spiritual leader since June 2013,” Judd says, and for the year prior, she held the post on an interim basis.
“I’m in contract negotiations right now with the BAJC. They agreed to sign a new, three-year contract with me, beginning in July,” she added.
Her contract with the community calls for her to get a raise if she gets ordained as cantor, but Judd says, “I’m thinking of giving it back to the BAJC.”
Judd describes the BAJC as comprising “about 100 families, but the numbers fluctuate.” Congregants are mostly from the Brattleboro area, but some come from as far away as Grafton, Walpole, N.H., and Shelburne Falls, Mass.
“We have a thriving Hebrew school,” she notes, with approximately 30 children enrolled. “I also teach kids studying for their bar and bat mitzvahs.”
The BAJC is affiliated with Reform Judaism, she says, but “the congregation spans the spectrum from Conservative to Jewish Renewal,” a subgroup that Judd described as “groovy Judaism.”
“We have regular services pretty much every week on Saturday mornings,” Judd says.
Every fourth Friday, the BAJC offers a Kabbalat Shabbat service to welcome the shabbat, or sabbath. The service, with musical instruments and singing, is “lively and lots of fun,” she says, adding that the congregation is “lucky to have Daniel Kasnitz and Stephan Brandstatter as my band.”
Although Judd’s ordination’s final recital takes place on the Hebrew College campus in April, she offered the BAJC a preview of the performance so local congregants and non-affiliated musical enthusiasts could enjoy the music.
The BAJC enthusiastically accepted.
The program, “For My Teachers,” features songs “to honor all the wonderful music, cantorial and otherwise”; Judd assures secular attendees that “it’s not all Jewish music.”
She says a few of the pieces are accompanied by an interfaith chorus including members of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Choir, the BAJC, and the West Brattleboro Worship Group (Quaker meeting).
Judd made special mention of the Quaker group, noting that its members meet at the BAJC’s synagogue on Greenleaf Street, and, she says, “we are so extremely happy to share our space with them.”
Osnat Netzer, composer and Harvard music professor, will play piano for some of Judd’s pieces. She describes the Israel-born pianist as a “wonderful accompanist.”
“There’ll be a few Bach pieces in honor of Blanche Moyse,” Judd says, adding she studied under the late conductor at Marlboro College and sang in her chorale as a teenager.
“Blanche was the first person who showed me how deeply spiritual music can be,” she says.
Judd will also perform three songs in French by Gabriel Fauré, “in honor of my former voice teacher and spiritual older brother, Sanford Sylvan.”
“I’m also singing the beautiful ‘Kiddush’ that Kurt Weill wrote for chorus and cantor,” Judd says, noting that there will be a few more Weill musical theater pieces, sung in English and Hebrew; songs sung in Yiddish, composed by Cantor Pierre Pinchik; and some traditional chazzanut, which Judd describes as “fancy cantorial singing.”
Additional pieces include “a beautiful setting of Psalm 121, which in English says, ‘I will lift up my eyes to the hills,’ written by Cantor Charles Osborne when the BAJC installed me as spiritual leader.”
Also in the performance: a song that Judd wrote when she studied composition with Osborne.
Judd said it “was not my expectation when I went to cantor school to become the BAJC’s spiritual leader, then cantor,” but she is “delighted, because I grew up here in Brattleboro, and I get the whole ‘Jew in the woods’ thing.”
“We’ve got a special kind of thing here, and it’s different from the experience of the city or suburban- Jew,” she said. “I’m thrilled and delighted we made a good match.”