Jenni Asher expects to graduate from the Academy for Jewish Religion California next spring. (Photo/Arjun Ramesh)
Jenni Asher expects to graduate from the Academy for Jewish Religion California next spring. (Photo/Arjun Ramesh)

L.A. musician Jenni Asher studying to be first ordained Black woman cantor

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As a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music in the late 2000s, Jenni Asher lived across the street from the city’s Central Synagogue. She was not Jewish at the time, but she was feeling angst over the direction that her spiritual home, the Worldwide Church of God, was headed. So after church services, which were held on Saturdays, she sat in on Shabbat services at the grand Orthodox shul.

“It was really quite the introduction to Judaism, looking back at it,” she told J. in an interview this month. “I started learning Hebrew there.”

Today, the accomplished violinist is a cantorial soloist and a student at the non-denominational Academy for Jewish Religion California (AJRCA) in Los Angeles. When she graduates next year, she will become the first Black American woman ordained as a cantor — and one of only two Black cantors in the country, according to the other one, Cantor David Fair.

“It will be a big moment,” said Fair, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York in 2021 and works at Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “There are only a handful” of Black clergy leading synagogues in the U.S., he added.

Fair noted that earlier Black performers who took the title “cantor” — figures such as Willie “The Lion” Smith, Thomas LaRue and Goldye Steiner — were not formally ordained. Some were not even Jewish by traditional standards.

“As trailblazing and courageous as they were, they were not actual cantors, just like you wouldn’t call a prolific Jewish thought leader a ‘rabbi’ if they didn’t get smicha,” said Fair, who wrote his HUC thesis on Black Jewish musicians.

Asher (left) and Cantor David Fair (Photo/Courtesy Asher)
Asher (left) and Cantor David Fair at an American Conference of Cantors gathering in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Asher)

Asher and Fair met at an American Conference of Cantors gathering in 2022, and Asher has called him for advice about how to navigate the Jewish world as a person of color in a leadership role.

“You will have to find compassion, and you will have to find opportunities for education that your white counterparts will never have to,” he said. “But you can still find the joy in that. I do believe it pays off in the end.”

Asher, 37, said she is up to the challenge. “My job as a Jew is to push myself to grow, and my job as a clergyperson is to invite others to grow, too,” she said.

Asher grew up in Pasadena in a religiously devout and music-loving family. Her mother took her to the symphony at age 4 and asked her which instrument she wanted to play. She chose the violin. Her father, a singer, played all kinds of music in their home.

“My dad instilled a love of jazz in me and exposed me to a whole bunch of music I wouldn’t have otherwise heard,” she said.

By 12, Asher had played her violin so often that she developed tendonitis in her wrist. By the time she was in college, the tendonitis had spread down her arm. Doctors told her to stop playing. “I loved the violin too much to just stop, and I had to find a different answer,” she said.

An occupational therapist introduced her to myofascial release therapy, a bodywork modality that focuses on releasing specific points of tension. The therapy helped her recover, and Asher would go on to start her own myofascial release therapy practice.

Asher has been playing violin since age 4 and has released three albums. (Photo/Jeff Bandy)
Asher has been playing violin since age 4 and has released three albums. (Photo/Jeff Bandy)

“I started Musician Bodywork as a way of helping musicians understand their bodies and give them ways to maintain their career,” she said. “Musicians need a middle person between [the] doctor and them, someone who understands the fear of not being booked for gigs if you’re wearing a wrist brace.” She described the treatments as “like massage without oil.” (Due to her demanding schedule, she now refers potential clients to other therapists.)

As members of the Worldwide Church of God, which was later renamed Grace Communion International, Asher and her family observed the Sabbath on Saturday, avoided pork and shellfish and celebrated versions of Jewish holidays.

“I was brought up to think that I understood the Torah,” she said. “We appreciated the Jews because they could speak Hebrew and read the Bible in the original language.”

She eventually came to realize how much she didn’t know and decided to convert through American Jewish University. She converted again in the Sephardic Orthodox tradition in order to be able to fully participate at the synagogues favored by her husband, who has Egyptian Jewish and Mexican heritage.

“We sing Egyptian Jewish melodies around the Friday night dinner table that nobody else hears,” she said. Her family belongs to Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Mizrahi shul in Santa Monica that follows Baghdadi customs.

Her decision to enroll in cantorial school initially came from a desire to engage more fully with the liturgy. “I had so many musical questions that needed answers,” she said. “I wanted to be part of everything going on in the sanctuary and offer my strengths.”

Her favorite class at AJRCA is Jewish music history, which is taught by Cantor Jonathan Friedmann. “She is trying to build a place for instruments other than guitar in the sonic landscape of the American cantorate, which is refreshing and innovative and something I fully endorse,” Friedmann told J. “I think she has the ability to breathe new life into the music of the synagogue.”

As a musician, Asher has performed with small ensembles and orchestras. She has released three albums of original arrangements and compositions: “London” (2014), “Freedom” (2017) and “Yaladati” (2021).

“Yaladati,” which means “I gave birth” in Hebrew, was a four-year project. “I was pregnant with my daughter when I started the album, and I finished it when I was pregnant with my son,” the mother of two said. “It was what I kept my creative self going with.”

The album contains 12 tracks, each with a Hebrew title — among them are “Savlanut” (“Patience”), “Isha” (“Woman”) and “Simcha” (“Joy”). Due to pandemic restrictions, she sang and played all of the instruments on the album — violin, viola, cello, erhu, double bass and piano — and also produced it.

Asher currently works as a cantorial soloist at Hamakom, a Conservative synagogue in Woodland Hills. She hopes to continue serving the community, as the music director and one of the cantors, after her ordination.

“It’s the perfect place to explore both older traditional melodies,” she said, “and to experiment with more musically improvisational services.”

Shoshana McKinney Kirya-Ziraba (Photo/Courtesy)
Shoshana McKinney Kirya-Ziraba

Shoshana McKinney Kirya-Ziraba is a Jewish African-American writer and founder of Tikvah Chadasha Uganda, a non-profit organization for Ugandan women and disabled children. Find her on Facebook.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.