S.F. cantor inspires Gilo congregation

Most Shabbat mornings find Rita Glassman presiding over services at her own synagogue. But on Dec. 16, the cantor of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco presided over services at Kehilat Shevet Achim, a Conservative synagogue in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Gilo has been the target of almost nightly gunfire since the outbreak of violence three months ago. Palestinian snipers have been using the nearby Christian village of Beit Jala as a cover to fire at the Jewish neighborhood, which was established after 1967 over the Green Line.

No Gilo residents had been hurt until the night before a national United Jewish Communities solidarity mission to Israel visited there last month. A 22-year-old woman was struck by a bullet when she looked out the window. Although she was hit in the neck, the bullet stopped halfway between her lungs and heart, and she survived.

Glassman, who does not describe herself as a particularly political person, was traveling with the UJC mission. After the group met with Gilo residents and heard what they have been going through in the past three months, Glassman decided she would spend Shabbat there.

"Suddenly I felt I knew one important reason I had come to Israel," she said. "Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, mine was a small gesture. But in addition to being present and showing up in Israel, I wanted to offer my voice and prayer to the people of Gilo, as a kind of shelf for them to lean and rest on for a little while. If I could sing for these Jews, perhaps their burden would feel a little bit lighter and their spirits would be lifted."

And so she did, leading portions of the morning Shabbat service, including a Torah reading.

Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow, spiritual leader of Kehilat Shevet Achim, sent an e-mail to Beth Sholom's Rabbi Alan Lew and to Sandy Edwards, synagogue president, telling them "how fortunate you are to have [Glassman] for all the other Shabbatot of the year."

Calling her performance "simply magnificent," Zacharow complimented Glassman on her "meticulous enunciation and angelic voice."

"Rita's chanting struck a balance between familiar melodies and innovative ones as she was always attuned to the needs of the worshippers," Zacharow wrote. "As I peered out into the congregation…I could see that half the congregants were following along in their siddurim [prayerbooks] and the other half were simply gazing in a daze … By the end of the emotionally charged morning, there was barely a dry eye in the congregation."

For her part, Glassman said, "I was exactly in the right place at the right time, doing what I knew best to do and serving k'lal Yisrael [the Jewish people] in the way I was meant to serve. Unlike the synagogues I attended in Jerusalem 20 years ago, this Jerusalem synagogue was filled with people from Russia, Tunisia, Argentina, Ethiopia, Sweden and yes, one from New Jersey."

Saying that she was a believer in signs, Glassman was especially moved when the ark was opened and she saw that the congregation's Torah had been donated by Congregation Beth El of New Rochelle, N.Y. Glassman grew up 15 minutes from there and one of her mentors in Torah cantillation came from that synagogue.

"I chanted the sixth aliyah of Parshat Vayishlach from that Torah and wondered if my old teacher would have been proud."

In doing the mitzvah of singing in Gilo, Glassman said she received a large gift in return — "the chance to lift others' spirits, to let our extended mishpacha in Israel know they're not alone."

Glassman added that she was particularly grateful to have the opportunity to sing as a woman cantor, "something unheard of in Israel when I was just getting started in life 20 years earlier."

Zacharow commented that Glassman could have spent her one Shabbat in Israel anywhere. "Yet she decided to spend it in a cold, makeshift synagogue in a neighborhood which can no longer be considered one of the safest in Jerusalem. If her purpose was to raise our morale and add a dimension to our spiritual lives, she was a smashing success."

The rabbi concluded, "Her indelible mark she has already left in Israel."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."