SPIRITUALITY AND JOY THROUGH MUSIC

By Deborah Vietor

Cantor Cheri Weiss is a visionary who has created an innovative and joyful spiritual dream infused with beautiful music for Judaism in San Diego. Weiss has identified a need and filled it with a congregation where people can practice “Independent” Judaism at San Diego Outreach Synagogue

Weiss received her Cantorial ordination in 2018 from the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJRCA), a post-denominational seminary in Los Angeles, she will be ordained as a rabbi next May by AJRCA.

“Over the past six years at AJRCA, I have been fortunate to have had fantastic teachers from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds,” she said.

A classically-trained vocalist with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in vocal performance from CSU Northridge, she taught voice lessons privately and at Palomar College for many years.

“I have always had a passion for the Hebrew language and Jewish music, particularly liturgical music. I lived in Israel for six years, am fluent in Hebrew, and served as the High Holy Days Cantor at synagogues in Providence, Houston and the San Jose area.”

“In 2013, my fellow congregant and mentor, Gene Newman (of blessed memory), urged me to go to Cantorial school. Initially, I was reluctant to pursue my long-held dream of becoming a cantor. With the encouragement of Gene, my daughter Emma; and husband Dan, I embarked on a five-year journey to the Cantorate. My family sacrificed both personally and financially as I traveled weekly to Los Angeles for classes.”

Following her cantorial ordination last year, she considered working in a traditional synagogue, but her heart was not in it. She wanted the visionary freedom to develop and nurture a new congregation without a denominational label so that people of all backgrounds could discover and celebrate their own Jewish identity. This led her to found San Diego Outreach Synagogue in 2018. Here, she shares her motivation and passion regarding Judaism, inclusion, spirituality and music.

L’CHAIM MAGAZINE: Do you collaborate with others in order to create your music? During performances, are you accompanied by additional musical talent?

CANTOR WEISS: We are blessed to be accompanied by the Outreach Band, which includes keyboardist Diane Benaroya, bassist Rocky Smolin, and guitarist Dan Weiss, (my husband). We have had — and will continue to include — guest musicians, instrumentalists, and vocalists. I sincerely believe that music elevates prayer, which is why it is the foundation of our services and other events.

L’CHAIM: Where is SDOS located and what is your focus regarding Judaism? Please describe “Independent” Judaism?

CW: SDOS is not aligned with any specific denomination. This frees me to follow my vision of creating an inclusive community welcoming people of all religious backgrounds. In recent years, there has been an amazing growth in independent congregations, almost all of which rent space in other synagogues, schools, office parks, etc. Some meet weekly for Shabbat evening and/or morning services, while others meet once or twice a month for services and in other venues for other holidays and celebrations. I have explored many of these new congregations in Los Angeles, Palm Desert and San Diego and have been amazed at the energy and enthusiasm generated by these independent congregations.

We hold our monthly musical Shabbat evening services and dinners at a rented venue in University City. We provide the location of our services once people sign up to attend via our website. This is primarily due to security concerns, even though we hire a private security firm. This also ensures there is enough food for the vegetarian potluck dinners following all of our services. These dinners are part of our conscious intention to create connections among our attendees, building a welcoming and inclusive spiritual community.

We draw more from contemporary composers connected to the Reform movement but not exclusively. Many of our songs are in English or a combination of English and Hebrew so that more people can join in. Our services are not meant to be performances; we want people to sing along, feeling the music and prayers in their own hearts.

L’CHAIM: How do you believe the new synagogue and your inspiration will change Judaism in San Diego?

CW: “The majority of people living in San Diego County who identify as Jews are unaffiliated with any synagogue. I have spoken to many people who want to engage in Judaism, but for one reason or another have not found a place to do so. Some feel uncomfortable in a traditional synagogue because they don’t understand the language or the prayers. Others are part of an interfaith family and have felt discouraged by their non-Jewish spouse’s lack of inclusion in traditional prayer services. Some had a negative experience in the past, while others just don’t want to pay thousands of dollars in dues. Yet, something in their souls is searching for meaning, for their spirits to be uplifted and to be – on some level – a part of a contemporary Jewish community, especially in the current climate when our lives and our society seem to be spinning out of control.

Since we are not interested in building our own physical structure, we keep our costs low. Our dedicated Board of Directors recently instituted a modest $180 per year membership model to help us pay for room rental, security services, insurance, food, etc. We are a 501c3 non-profit organization, donations in any amount are truly appreciated, and everyone is welcome regardless of their finances.”

Asked how music engages and inspires the community, and in particular the Jewish community, Cantor Weiss, stated that to her, music elevates prayer.

A prayer sung to a beautiful melody touches my soul in a way that a prayer without music does not. I believe that is true for most people. I am so excited to be leading our very first High Holy Days Services this year, in a lovely setting overlooking the golf course at Morgan Run Club & Resort in Rancho Santa Fe. We held our first Passover Seder there this year and had an amazing turnout of almost 100 people!

Our High Holy Days Services will feature our Outreach Band as well as some incredible guest musicians, including violinist Alicia Previn and oboist/vocalist Emilia Lopez-Yañez. I want everyone to feel comfortable at our services and events regardless of their background. We welcome interfaith families, members of the LGBTQ community, and anyone who has ever felt marginalized by traditional denominational Judaism.”

L’CHAIM: What are some of the SDOS upcoming events, and where can they be found?

CW: Our events are listed on our website. We will be offering two classes in the Fall: “Introduction to Judaism” and “Jewish Mysticism and Philosophy.” Our “Coffee with the Cantor” program was recently created so people could meet in an informal setting to exchange ideas on such topics as energizing our Jewish lives and finding inspiration in Jewish traditions and practices. We have also launched community service initiatives in partnership with Jewish Family Services. It is really an honor and a blessing to be at the helm of a growing, independent Jewish congregation at a time when people are so open to its infinite possibilities.

L’CHAIM: Please tell us about your High Holy Days album and where our readers can find it.

CW: In 2016, I raised $10,000 through crowdfunding, recorded and produced “Hineni: Music For the High Holy Days,” which features Diane on piano, (she also served as co-producer and created many of the arrangements), and includes several guest musicians. My motivation was to distribute “Hineni” at no cost to seniors and others who were unable to attend High Holy Day Services. We distributed over 1,000 CD’s nationally. “Hineni” is also provided to chaplains, rabbis, and others working in hospitals and care facilities and currently available in CD or download formats through the CD Baby website: www.store.cdbaby.com.

To learn more about Cantor Weiss and the San Diego Outreach Synagogue, visit www.sdo-synagogue.org or call (858) 280-6331.

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