And You Shall be a Blessing: A Tribute to Rabbi Miriam and Cantor Lisa Kent

By Emil Sher

Rituals are the mortar that connect us to our community, to our past, to each other.  There is one DJC ritual that, for the most part, has gone unnoticed. It happens when we stand on the cusp of the High Holydays, and Rabbi Miriam and Cantor Lisa stand on the bimah.  They take a moment to face each other and clasp hands. But it doesn’t end there. They lean forward, eyes closed, and touch foreheads. In that wordless moment, they become one in their intentions, in their commitment to each other and to us, in their devotion to the never-ending story of Judaism.

In the beginning, there was a living room. Lisa’s roots in the DJC go back to that fateful day in 1996 when she gathered with a dozen or so other people in the home of Jacob and Claudia Bali, where the seeds of the DJC were first planted. Miriam arrived fourteen years later as a triple-threat rabbi: artist, educator, activist. You don’t have to believe in the afterlife to know it was a match made in heaven. What do we call that kind of fusion? A rabtor? A crabbi? 

Maya Angelou has famously said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Each of us has our own sense of how Rabbi Miriam and Cantor Lisa made us feel.  It’s an alphabet of emotions that fills our senses, a constellation of guiding lights that showed us the way. ‘A’ for the deep appreciation we felt for Rabbi Miriam’s wisdom. ‘G’ for the gratitude we felt as we basked in the generosity of her spirit, and her inspiring commitment to inclusivity. ‘J’ for the joy we felt as we were lifted and carried by Cantor Lisa’s voice. ‘O’ for overwhelmed when she sang Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for healing, as if she was whispering it into the ear of someone near and dear to us. ‘R’ for the reassuring continuity Rabbi Miriam and Cantor Lisa provided in a fractured world that is in constant flux.  And let us add a ‘C’ for the times we were cradled by the sound of a guitar that Danny Greenspoon played so movingly, so artfully, year after year after year.

Some of us make space for Miriam’s Cup on our Passover tables, on the same table where Elijah’s cup has always been placed.  Miriam’s Cup reflects the role that Jewish women have always played in nurturing and sustaining the Jewish people. We had the good fortune of being in arm’s reach of Miriam’s well all year round, a well of Jewish wisdom and Jewish traditions and Jewish learning that we drank from, that nourished us.  Exhibit A: a pre-Pesach workshop titled Transforming Fear: A Workshop in Text and Movement. An evening of adult education invited us to explore ‘The Many Faces of the Imageless God.’ In a session about Jewish identity, Rabbi Miriam posed four questions that continue to burn with a quiet intensity: are we a people, a religion, a culture, or a gastronomic obsession? We drank from Miriam’s well, and filled our cups to the brim.

The birth of Noa Ella. The multigenerational b’nei mitzvah of Jackson and his grandmother Jacki, the wedding of Evelyn and Jordy, the passing of Annabelle Weiss.  If you have ever been to a life-cycle event led by Rabbi Miriam then you know she embodies authenticity. The joy she radiates in the presence of a newborn is as real and true as the sorrow she expresses at a funeral.  Miriam Margles is forever in the moment. 

If yours was an interfaith wedding ceremony you might have had the privilege of Lisa Kent officiating. That sounds too, well, official. A marriage license can record the who, the when, the where. It can’t reflect what Cantor Lisa brings to this simcha, what she and Rabbi Miriam wear like a second layer of skin: heart and soul.

Come the day when the history of the DJC is not simply written but showcased, let there be a display featuring Cantor Lisa’s tuning fork. To say the DJC choir is simply part of the fabric of the DJC is to overlook how it is an essential thread stitched into our collective identity.  We know the score: Cantor Lisa would tap her tuning fork and bring it to her ear, and in a moment she would lead the choir to unearthly heights and take us with them.  For some, memories of the synagogues of our childhood were rekindled. For others, the choir was a doorway into melodies we had never really known.  For all of us, Cantor Lisa and the choir extended an invitation to give ourselves over to the singular power of High Holyday music woven with words. Fluency in Hebrew is not required when a song is a synonym for a people’s yearnings. 

For many years, one DJC member faithfully sat in the front row in the sanctuary at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Imagine the pride the late Ida Kent felt at seeing her daughter lead us in song. This fall, Ruth and Harold Margles gathered at the Brick Works to take part in Tashlich, and to behold their daughter as she led us down yet another path of ritual and self-discovery.  These two daughters of the DJC changed us, and we changed them. This back-and-forth, this give-and-receive is at the heart of all meaningful relationships. Daughters, yes, but they were also matriarchs who embraced us with open arms, and guided us with a seasoned hand.

And now these two beautiful mensches are leaving the home they helped build, a bayit they lined with passion for Judaism, for a Judaism that bridges a rich, ancient history with the urgency of the here-and-now. At many a b’nei mitzvah ceremony Lisa set her loving gaze upon newly-hatched young adults as they transitioned from one chapter of their lives into another.  In the shadow of many joyous new beginnings is a bittersweet leaving. To everything there is a season. Every calendar has a last page. How blessed we are to have journeyed with Miriam and Lisa for as long and as far as we have.

L’chi lach, to a land that I will show you,” Lisa sang to these young souls embarking on a new journey, with lyrics by Debbie Friedman based on Genesis 12:1-2. “Lech l’cha to a place you do not know. L’chi lach, on your journey I will bless you. And you shall be a blessing, l’chi lach.”

As we bid you farewell, dearest Miriam and Lisa, we say, “You have been, you shall be, you will forever be a blessing.”

Ilu Finu is a song written by Rabbi Miriam that we have sung on Rosh Hashanah. We would be divided into three sections along the seating plan in the sanctuary and given separate parts. Together, we sang Ilu Finu: The Wonder of Song and Gratitude.  The lyric is laced with a profound truth: wonders are as timeless as waves that wash upon a shore, and gratitude needs no coda.

Ilu finu maleh shira ka’yam.  If our mouths were as full of song as the sea. 

Our mouths are full, beloved Rabbi Miriam and Cantor Lisa. Our eyes are wet.  Our hearts sing.