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L.A. synagogue hires first cantor ordained in Germany since WWII

Juval Porat is fitting in well with the Beth Chayim Chadashim congregation, introducing them to 19th century European Jewish melodies and developing an understanding of American liturgical music.

June 26, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

Juval Porat may be a trailblazer, but it's a title he embraces with all the zeal he exhibits for the transportation system in Los Angeles, his new hometown.

Which is to say: Not much.

"I never intended to carry that label," he said. "I just liked what I did."

What he did, and does, is sing.

Porat is a cantor, a Jewish leader of musical prayer. His distinction is being the first, and so far the only, cantor ordained in Germany since the Holocaust. On June 18, he was formally installed as the cantor of Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim, a Los Angeles Reform synagogue that is something of a trailblazer itself, claiming to be the world's first congregation for gay and lesbian Jews.

"I referred to myself as the first cantor from Germany to wear a tie at BCC," he said, employing both a self-deprecating wit and the acronym for his new congregation.

How Porat wound up in Los Angeles is a tale of serendipity, wanderlust and, perhaps, a touch of fate. As BCC board member Maggie Anton Parkhurst put it: "The first German cantor — and he's gay, and he's cute!"

Porat, 31, was born in Israel but has spent roughly half his life in Germany, part of a small but growing Jewish community that includes some families of German Jews who survived the Holocaust and others who have settled there since. Porat's father, an orthopedic surgeon, accepted a job in Germany in the 1980s, intending to stay for a short time but settling in for 12 years. Juval (pronounced Yoo-val), meanwhile, moved back to Israel to attend school from seventh to 12th grades, living first with relatives and later at a Jewish religious school, or yeshiva.

He returned to Germany to attend university in the western city of Aachen, also known as Aix-la-Chapelle, eventually earning a degree in architecture. One Friday night, he recalled, the small local Jewish congregation found itself without a cantor. Porat volunteered to fill in: He had a base of knowledge from his yeshiva, and the experience of watching his father lead services as a layman.

Soon, he said, he was getting requests from congregations throughout Germany to lead prayer as an unordained cantor.

In 2004, he graduated and moved to Berlin to work as an architect. But he quickly realized that it wasn't what he wanted to do. His heart was in singing, and specifically in Jewish prayer.

He approached Abraham Geiger College, Germany's first postwar Jewish seminary. Did they have a program for cantorial students? "They said, 'Not yet, but why don't you apply?,' " he recalled. He did, and was admitted as Geiger's first cantorial student.

It was not ideal, Porat said. "It was a lonely journey, because I was the only student," he said. He clashed with professors over curriculum and chafed when the school insisted on making decisions about whether he could continue to lead services at synagogues before he was ordained.

In the end, he said, "I think everybody made their best effort to make the training as good as possible."

He is nonchalant about having been a Jew in Germany, something that older Jews, especially, find fraught with tragic associations. "I think the younger generation, my generation, is a little bit less intimidated," he said. "Berlin is full of young Israelis. It's quite a phenomenon."

In February 2008, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, Bruce Maxwell, was on vacation in Berlin and attended services with a friend at a local synagogue. There Maxwell met a man who, at the time, was Porat's partner, and through him, met Porat.

At dinner that evening, Maxwell mentioned that BCC was looking for a cantor for its High Holy Day services in the fall. Would Porat be interested?

"He said, 'Yeah, it sounds fascinating,' " recalled Maxwell, now BCC's president.

Maxwell asked Porat to send a digital file with samples of his singing. Back in Los Angeles, a committee at the synagogue sat down to listen to identity-blind recordings from a number of applicants.

Recalled Rabbi Lisa Edwards: "We all heard his voice, and the room just froze. We loved his voice."

BCC has always placed great emphasis on music, she said, and wanted a cantor who would sing with the congregation, not perform for it. "There was just this gentleness in his voice that made us think he wasn't all about performance and show," she said.

Porat was hired for the temporary job after an interview over Skype, the Internet-based videophone system.

By all accounts, Porat was a success during the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services that fall — so much so that he was offered a full-time job after he finished cantorial school last June. He agreed to join the growing congregation, which was established in 1972, and is about to start work on a new home a block from the synagogue on Pico Boulevard.

"I would never have dreamt of ending up here, but the opportunity was quite exciting, so I said yes," he said.

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