Oheb Shalom fetes Lippitz, 30 years of women cantors

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — International Women’s Day occurred March 8, but the celebration continued into the weekend when South Orange’s Oheb Shalom Congregation honored its own Cantor Erica Lippitz, who is celebrating 30 years of serving in the cantorate. “From Bima to Broadway” featured Lippitz and cantors Magda Fishman, Alisa Pomerantz-Boro and Elizabeth Shammash, who are also celebrating careers spanning three decades, performing a mixture of traditional Jewish music and Broadway tunes on March 11.

“We wanted to feature the many women who have followed me and have come into the cantorship and recognize these songs,” Lippitz said in a March 9 phone interview with the News-Record.

Lippitz was in the first class of women to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary as a cantor, though she said that women had been allowed to study at the school before they were awarded certification. Prior to 30 years ago, cantors were traditionally all male.

“I was already in school learning because I wanted to learn,” Lippitz said. “We were thrilled and honored to be a part of that.”

Lippitz said that she is a teacher at heart, which is one reason she was inspired to become a cantor in the first place.

“I wanted to interact with people at their most important moments,” she said. “I love music as a conduit for spirit, and I thought it would be fulfilling and honor the centuries of music there are. I feel so privileged that I had remarkable teachers, so I wanted to be one of those for my students.”

Lippitz has seen a lot change since 1987, and women more commonly becoming cantors is only one of the innovations.

“Only in these last 30 years have cantors and people trained in music been trained as skilled pastors and organizers,” she said. “It’s become more complex and interesting. Congregations have always been a hub for activity and social action, and now even more so.”

That activity was on full display at the concert, with a large audience cheering on Lippitz and the other performers as they sang their own compositions, traditional music and Broadway favorites from composers including Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz.

“It’s clear to me that women are now almost equally represented with men in the seminary,” Lippitz said. “They’re almost equally represented, which is the opposite of what was true 30 years ago.”

Oheb Shalom has been a pioneer in having women leaders, which is one of the reasons that Lippitz said her time there has lasted so long. According to a Feb. 21 press release about the concert, Oheb Shalom elected its first woman president in 1979 and began to offer girls the opportunity to become b’not mitzvah as early as 1948.

“They distinguished themselves long before I arrived,” Lippitz said. “They were ready to embrace it and ready to launch into the community. It’s full of women and men who are active in their communities and that has always been a focus of this congregation.”

Oheb Shalom Executive Director Linda Griffler agreed, saying that Lippitz has been an instrumental part of that growth.

“It’s been amazing; she’s coordinated a whole range of music and community events,” Griffler said in a March 9 phone interview with the News-Record. “It’s become more common, and there’s always more room for women to grow in it.”

Mark Gordon, an Oheb Shalom member, historian and member of the music committee that helped organize the concert, said the occasion of 30 years of women in the cantorate and 30 years of Lippitz as Oheb Shalom’s cantor was a milestone to celebrate.

“It’s very forceful and exciting showing the power of women cantors,” Gordon told the News-Record in an interview at the event on March 11. “Before 1970, only men could lead prayer … these last 30 years there’s been a sea change that took many years to get to. Now they can do anything with no restrictions. We were at a milestone, and to have a community celebration was ideal.”

Lippitz said that community is one reason she has stayed put for so many years.

“The values matched my own, they’re progressive in terms of race and gender,” she said. “They’re also distinct in terms of music. This is a place people come when they want to hear great music, with their attention to music and the arts. It’s the only community I wanted to live in.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic