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CAI scholar-in-residence to animate Shabbat with song, story

Update 11.22.19: This scholar-in-residence weekend is supported by The Rabbi Marcus Breger Fund at Congregation Anshei Israel.

Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny, left, and Cantorial Soloist Nichole Chorny

Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles will bring new music and innovative, interactive Shabbat services to Tucson as Congregation Anshei Israel’s scholar-in-residence, Dec. 13 and 14. Her visit will culminate in a cantors’ concert with her sister-in-law, CAI Cantorial Soloist Nichole Chorny.

Beth Am’s rabbi cantor will begin her weekend here, she says, “by modeling what it means to do a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat experience that mostly uses new music. So, how to introduce it, how to sing it, how to integrate and weave it, how to train your lay folks who are natural leaders.” This doesn’t necessarily mean the people with the best voices, she explains, but rather those who “can pipe up and create the momentum” that turns a new tune into one that’s familiar enough that others will jump on board.

It’s also important to know how to figure out the right balance of new versus old, so it feels like there’s enough innovation — “that it feels like Friday night is not the same as it was two, or five or six years ago” — while still honoring the fact “that nostalgia and custom are cornerstones of people’s experience,” she says. 

CAI’s Chorny is excited about the format for the Friday night service. “It’s going to be in the round, but in a very tight round,” she explains. Instead of the leaders being at the front, they will be in the middle of the circle, with “everybody gathered close together.”

“It should be a very moving experience, being able to pray in a different way,” she says.

The Friday night service, which also will include special meditations, will take place at 5:45 p.m., followed by a dinner (RSVP and a fee are required for the dinner).

At 7:45 p.m., Beth Am’s Chorny will offer Shabbat songs and a discussion on “The Torah of Innovation.”

The purpose of innovation, she explains, is rooted in the idea that there are two sides to prayer. “There’s fixed prayer, and there’s the intentionality that comes behind the prayer.” There’s “keva,” the liturgy one is obligated to say if following Conservative or Orthodox tradition, and there’s “kavanah,” or intention.

Innovation keeps prayer from becoming rote. “If you’re married to the idea, as I am, and as people who tend toward belonging to Conservative synagogues are, that you are going to stay loyal to that keva, to saying those same words, it’s hard to maintain kavanah without changing something that allows you to change the view or the angle of the experience.”

Cantors can use music to infuse new meaning in two ways, she says. One is by giving songs a different feeling, such as singing a prayer more slowly or with a tune that evokes the Middle East rather than a klezmer melody — “and now I’m picturing a different place when I close my eyes.” The second way might be described as more cerebral:  a cantor might explain why and how they’ve edited a Shabbat Psalm, for example, “and then we’re delivering, as a package, a new meaning there.”

At Anshei Israel’s Shabbat morning services on Dec. 14, Rabbi Cantor Chorny will present “Targum and Torah” during some of the aliyot, or Torah honors, standing next to the Torah reader, and translating verses in a dramatic, story-focused way. For the D’var Torah, she will engage congregants in a Bibliodrama.

The idea of Bibliodrama, which was popularized by a man named Peter Pitzele in the 1980s, she says, “is to challenge people to respond to a prompt as characters in the biblical text.

She gives an example: “You are Shifrah or Puah (Hebrew midwives in ancient Egypt). You’ve just learned that Pharaoh said all male Jewish children must be killed immediately upon birthing them. You are sitting in a birthing room, a male baby has just emerged, and you are standing there holding a crying baby in your arms. Talk to us as a group and tell us how you feel.”

On Saturday night at 7 p.m., the two Chornys will present a concert with the theme, “Hadeish Yameinu K’kedem: Renewing Our Days as of Old.” CAI’s Chorny explains they’ll be using familiar liturgical texts to introduce some of the newest music in the Jewish world, and, since the concert begins after Shabbat, they’ll be able to use instruments.

Raised in San Diego, Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. in Jewish studies and a minor in vocal jazz performance. After working as a Judaics instructor and music director in various Jewish communities and camps, she pursued her dream of becoming a cantor. In time, teachers and family inspired her to also pursue the rabbinate. She completed her cantorial investiture, rabbinical ordination, and a master’s degree in sacred music at the Jewish Theological Seminary before joining the staff of Temple Beth Am in 2014.

Nichole Chorny is a native Tucsonan with a degree from the University of Arizona in music education, with an emphasis in choral music. She has been a cantorial soloist at CAI since 2014, and has been active in the Tucson Jewish community as a service leader and Jewish educator since 2006.

For the Friday night dinner, the CAI member fee, if reserved by Dec. 9, is $18 for adults, $12 for children. For guests, it is $23 for adults, $15 for children. Prices are $5 more per person after Dec. 9.

RSVP is also requested for the concert, with a suggested donation of $18 per person.

RSVP at or 745-5550.