When Carol Chesler was informed by Rabbi Michael Katz that Temple Beth Torah’s cantor, Kalman Fliegelman, was retiring after 55 years in his position and taking on the honorable title of Cantor Emeritus (as of June 30), it was a dream come true for Chesler. Currently the hazzan at Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, Chesler has been juggling several side jobs and seeking out a full-time cantor position not far from where she lives in Huntington with her husband, Rabbi Barry Chesler and their four children. The fact that Temple Beth Torah is a Conservative temple with a firm reputation for finding meaning in traditional Judaism for the modern changing world was a significant bonus, along with the fact that Temple Beth Torah is welcoming its first female cantor.
“Serving a congregation full-time was what I did at the Huntington Jewish Center. Over the last seven years, I’ve been piecing together lots of small, part-time things, which is exhausting,” she said. “The fact that the congregation is not only hiring a new person following Cantor Fliegelman’s moving on to become Cantor Emeritus, but a woman, is monumental. If I can give you an idea for how outrageous this is for Long Island, you can count the number of women cantors working in Conservative temples on one hand. Temple Beth Torah has had a cantor of a certain era for a long time. They are hiring somebody new, which is very jarring for a congregation that’s only heard one voice at the bima for a long time, which is a big leap of faith, pun intended. It’s a good thing. It will be a difficult transition in some ways, because it’s a new piece, hearing my voice and what they’re used to is a different sound and different way of doing things.”
Founded in 1960, Temple Beth Torah is a Conservative synagogue made up of about 350 families serving the Jewish communities of the Jericho area, including Brookville, Old Westbury, Muttontown and Syosset. As a member of the Cantors Assembly, Cantor Chesler’s credentials in formal education include a Master’s in Sacred Music, Diploma of Hazzan from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) of America, as well as a Bachelor of Arts from the College-Conservatory of Music at The University of Cincinnati. The St. Louis native has received several honors and awards, including the Torah Fund Woman of Achievement award and she is also a JTS Honoree. In addition to her skills as a shlichat tzibur (messenger of the congregation) at synagogue services, she is an accomplished song leader and music teacher for families and children of all ages. She has focused much of her energy and passion on working with very young children. A big part of getting her message across to the congregation is the existing technology that Temple Beth Torah currently possesses.
“I’m trying to bring the synagogue into the 21st century in my own way with technology and all kinds of things in teaching kids and communicating with parents. How people stay in touch with each other is so different. I only just recently got a smart phone. I saw after getting one, it changed how I do things professionally and personally. It’s important to really be able to go in that direction,” she said. “The congregation has a great media room to teach kids and to teach music. It’s got a SmartBoard and modular with laptops. It’s a fabulous part of this congregation and I’m excited about that.”
In her new role as cantor, Chesler will lead worship, officiate at life cycle events, run the synagogue choir programs and serve as a dedicated teacher and tutor for the Temple’s Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. It’s a shift that Temple Beth Torah’s Rabbi Michael Katz is bittersweet about.
“We at Temple Beth Torah have mixed emotions. We cherish Cantor Fliegelman and will truly miss him leading our services, but we are thrilled to have Cantor Chesler follow in his footsteps. She brings great energy and excitement and her voice and personality have already begun to inspire us,” he said. “With the appointment of Cantor Chesler, Temple Beth Torah gains a new spiritual leader who brings with her vast knowledge of Judaism combined with a unique passion for music and song.”
Temple Beth Torah President Andrew Marshall is also optimistic about the upcoming change.
“Presenting a unique perspective on religious ceremony and teachings, Cantor Chesler brings with her many skills and abilities which we believe will both inspire and engage with our members, in particular, our younger families and their children, making Conservative traditions more approachable,” he said. “We look forward to Cantor Fliegelman to remain a member of Temple Beth Torah’s family and we welcome Cantor Chesler to our temple and community.”
Chesler is sensitive to her arrival as part of the Temple Beth Torah congregation.
“I want to be very mindful in how I introduce music because they have traditions that are worth respecting, especially after spending decades with this cantor. You don’t want to come in and upend everything. It’s going to be challenging to find my place in this community and my place of happiness, comfort and growth, because growth is really important,” she said. “[But] I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to become part of the Temple Beth Torah community, and serve its members both on the bima and off. I look forward to working with everyone, with the goal of bringing beautiful and joyous music to our services and our programs. The prospect of being able to focus my energies on one community, one congregation, is a dream come true.”
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