In the front foyer of the Huntington Jewish Center on Park Avenue is a sign that states certain philosophical principles that are considered important enough that they’re posted where all those entering can see them.
Among them? KEHILLA KEDOSHA, the concept of a holy community, in which each individual is infinitely valuable. TIKKUM OLAM, or the duty to repair the world -- by working for social justice.
Down the list of principles is another statement which suggests that, while HJC is a conservative congregation, they’re not averse to the idea of considered change -- or "Thoughtful Evolution," as it is written.
A year into his role as cantor at HJC, Israel Gordan seems to be embodying that notion.
After a year or so without a cantor on staff, Gordan is making up for it, incorporating into his work musical modalities from numerous Jewish traditions and enthusiasm for the improvisational elements of cantorial singing.
Preparations this week for the High Holy Days gave Gordan only a few moments to spare in his busy schedule to reflect on his first cantorial assignment, but enough to reveal a young cantor with a breadth of experience that matches the long road which has brought him to Huntington.
That road includes a childhood in Massachusetts, a degree in Urban Studies from Columbia, a semester abroad in Jerusalem, a stint with Mark Platt Productions at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, and a position in New York City in recruitment and admissions for Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
It was all good. But all along, he knew he was looking for something more. “I realized I didn’t just want a desk job, but to be part of a community and part of people’s lives,” said Gordan.
One day, recalling the work of cantors he knew as a child, Gordan had an insight. “People in today’s world aren’t part of a religious group by force, they choose religion,” he says. “They have motivation to do this thing, they’re looking to do this thing. I liked that fact, and I realized I could share in their sense of direction and purpose.“
It was at the prestigious Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he pursued a masters in Jewish Education, a masters of Sacred Music, and ordination as a cantor, that he honed his craft and came to understand he had the access to a broad range of music to accomplish his work.
“There are so many musical modes available to a cantor -- including Italian, North African, Sephardic, and Hasidic forms,“ says Gordan. Not to mention the unique improvisational opportunities of cantorial technique that has allowed him to search for shape a body of music that inspires 21st Century congregants.
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Bottom line for Israel Gordan is that, with a year under his belt as cantor at the Huntington Jewish Center, he’s not only experienced the full cycle of religious observances with his Conservative congregation, but come to understand the unique role a cantor can play for a congregation -- through the "thoughtful evolution" of his craft.