First Gay Cantorial Student
By Stacey Dresner
Marisa James, a native of Orange, has become the first openly gay cantorial student accepted by the Conservative movements Jewish Theological Seminary.
Recently, Arnold Eisen, JTS chancellor-elect, announced the decision to accept openly gay students to both its rabbinical and cantorial schools.
This follows a decision last December by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly to accept gay and lesbian rabbis and allow same-sex commitment ceremonies.
James, who grew up attending Congregation Or Shalom in Orange, now lives in New York, and is a member of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the largest Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgender congregation in the country.
"This has been a long struggle, and we are very proud that one of our members will break this barrier," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the New York City congregation. "This is a bold step toward justice for all."
James, 30, grew up Orange with her parents, Holly and Ian Green, and her younger brother, Mitchell. She graduated from Amity High School and attended MAKOM Hebrew High School.
She went on to receive both her bachelors and masters degrees in English Literature from the University of Connecticut at Storrs and planned to teach college English. As a graduate student she taught English at both UConn and Rutgers, but decided not to get her doctorate. After leaving academia, she worked at both a book store and in the insurance field.
But she was always interested in both music and Judaism.
I have always been interested in music. Ive sung in choirs my entire life at every school I have attended. And I have always been very involved at Or Shalom and then at UConn Hillel, and at the synagogue where I am now, she said.
Growing up at Or Shalom with Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus n who serves as both rabbi and cantor n James said that she had never really thought being a cantor was an option.
Up until last year I did not know there was such a thing as a full-time cantor, she said. Rabbi Wainhaus is a wonderful musician and he has a wonderful singing voice and for many years we never had a cantor at all and when we finally did it was only for a few weeks during the High Holidays.
After James joined Simchat Torah in Manhattan and became actively involved in its choir and Shabbat services, the congregations music director -- who teaches at the Reform movements Hebrew Union College -- asked if she ever considered going to cantorial school.
My response was No. Why would I train to do something where I would get a job only three weeks a year? She said, You need to go visit other synagogues and see what the world is like outside your little synagogue, James laughed.
When she realized that being a cantor was a possibility, she became intrigued.
In the end it combined a lot of the things I really love doing best. So I am incredibly lucky to be getting the chance to really do it now.
James first applied to the Hebrew Union College.
I actually did not apply to JTS originally because there have been a handful of people who have come through JTS and graduated by staying in the closet the whole time and I was not willing to do that, she said.
James heard in the middle of March that she was not accepted by HUC.
I was actually kind of relieved because, the Reform movement is wonderful, but I dont know it n it is not home for me. A week later JTS made the decision that they were going to admit openly gay and lesbian students and it just felt like something was absolutely basherte about it. The timing was just right.
She spoke with the head of the cantorial school right away. She auditioned and was told the next day that the cantoral school wanted her, and would I able to leave for Israel the first week of August?
Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus at Or Shalom has been especially supportive, she said. For the past year she has returned to Or Shalom once a month as guest cantor.
Rabbi Wainhaus has always been very encouraging to me and I cant image growing up with any other rabbi. He is just loving and so supportive of everyone in his congregation, she said.
James also credits the clergy at Simchat Torah for their support.
My rabbis, cantor, and music director work to instill in their congregants a love of Yiddishkeit, music, and social justice, she said. I’m excited to have been given the opportunity to learn to do the same for others, and it gives me great pleasure to be part of the first class of students at JTS who will never have to hide any part of our identities. My dream is to bring my own love of music and Yiddishkeit and social justice to the generations of Conservative Jews for whom gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered rabbis and cantors are a blessing, not a controversy."