Cantor Juval Porat Celebrates 10 Years With BCC

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Yael Maxwell DeVita

In the ten years since Juval Porat has been known as the first cantor to be ordained in Germany since WWII, he’s come to be known for much else.

Some might call him their song leader; others their friend and spiritual guide. He’s produced albums and concerts, conducted BCC’s choir, taught classes and spiritual workshops, and worked collaboratively with Rabbis Lisa Edwards, Heather Miller, and Alyson Solomon. Cantor Juval has celebrated anniversaries and weddings and welcomed new babies with congregants, and he has stood with mourners following community losses and also mass shootings.

But it is probably his love of music and liturgy, weaving the traditional with the contemporary in a collaborative fashion, as well as cultivating relationships with congregants, that he finds most rewarding about his role. “I hope that my passion for keeping our traditional liturgy alive by setting it to different kinds of music that I research and discover is as exciting to the congregants as it is to me,” he said. “There’s an ongoing, probably never-ending conversation about the balance of innovation and the traditional, and it’s something that fascinates me and is part of my work on an ongoing basis when I plan services.”

Looking back on the past decade, Cantor Juval acknowledged the many challenges he faced when uprooting from Germany to California. Back then “I did not imagine that my body or even my psyche would respond in such an intense way as it did when I actually made the move,” he remembered. Leaving behind the familiar—he had spent several years living in Berlin, where he ultimately graduated as the first cantor from Abraham Geiger College since the war—was difficult, and living in Los Angeles presented quite the culture shock.

Another adaptation he had to make in coming to BCC was the fact that Judaism as it was practiced in the United States was very different from what he had learned in Germany. Also, Cantor Juval recognized that when he came to BCC, he was inheriting a culture and community already built on decades of tradition, most recently on the musical front from Cantorial Soloist Fran Chalin, who had retired in December 2007.

He began introducing some of the repertoire he learned in Germany in small doses. “It took me about 2 or 3 years of experimenting and adjusting—seeing what worked and what didn’t—until I was able to find a good balance,” Cantor Juval said.

This kind of fresh approach was exactly what BCC leadership at the time was looking for, remembers Bruce Maxwell, who initially met Cantor Juval while vacationing in Berlin in early 2008. At the time, Maxwell was serving as BCC treasurer and encountered Cantor Juval at an event at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue where filmmaker Sandi DuBowski was speaking. He encouraged Cantor Juval to apply for the position of High Holiday cantor that year.

“A young, gay, cantorial student? I got kind of excited, like, ‘Oh, I want to meet this guy!’” Maxwell recalled. “We were looking for someone for High Holidays, and it would be kind of interesting to get somebody who’s young and new and different than most of the cantors we were meeting in LA. . . . When I first met him at that lunch, he was very soft-spoken and seemed very intriguing to me, just very intellectual. When he spoke, he had something interesting to say.”

For Brett Trueman, who was BCC president at the time, the idea of bringing in Cantor Juval was also refreshing. “I thought, ‘Wow, a young guy, which is good for the congregation and [would present a] good image to attract people to BCC,’” he recalled. “He seemed pleasant, he was quite knowledgeable, and his knowledge of Hebrew I thought was a big plus.”

After witnessing Cantor Juval’s first BCC High Holiday services, Maxwell observed that he was a “really good match” with Rabbi Lisa Edwards. “They worked well together, and both of them have a similar demeanor and complemented each other well.” When Cantor Juval was invested as a cantor at the Rykestrasse Synagogue back in Berlin in June 2009, Maxwell, Trueman, and Rabbi Edwards all went to support him. “The ceremony itself was impressive,” Trueman said. “I was proud of him. People clearly respected him, and it was fun to be around him during that time.” The cantorial selection committee brought him to BCC full-time in 2009, and Cantor Juval was officially installed as BCC’s cantor on June 18, 2010.

It wasn’t long before Cantor Juval was plaiting his style of Judaism into BCC services and programs. “As I grew as a cantor and evolved and kind of got to know the culture of the land, I was able to bring my own interests in and touch upon mindfulness and meditation, collaboratively explore pathways towards meaningful worship whether through poetry, pop culture, dance, and whatever else provided inspiration,” he said. In the ensuing years, Cantor Juval has produced three albums— “Shalem,” “Optimism,” and “Theology,” organized multiple collaborative cantorial concerts, and brought in guest musicians like Noah Aronson and Cantor Rebekah Mirsky. Congregants may have also noticed interesting instruments joining them at services, including a duduk, electric bass, shruti box, and a beat sampler.

Cantor Juval gleefully remembers celebrating with the congregation when same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015 and somberly recalls organizing a community vigil following the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, FL in 2016. Marching with the congregation with the Torah to the new BCC building, singing the song he wrote for the occasion “House of New Life” in 2011 is also a highlight of his time here.

One of Cantor Juval’s most meaningful memories was during the High Holidays of 2014, when the whole congregation was mourning the sudden passing of its member William Korthof. “When leading the congregation through the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I couldn’t hold back my emotions, and it was then that the congregation carried me, rather than the other way around,” he said. “In a way, being able to express my grief from the bimah in that moment felt like an arrival to me, as I felt a sense of safety in which I allowed myself to be held by the community.”

Most recently, Cantor Juval has entered into a collaborative relationship with Interim Rabbi Alyson Solomon, who said, “the idea of partnering with Cantor Juval was, and is, one of BCC’s most compelling assists. Cantor Juval is full of depth, integrity and soul. I am grateful to daven on the bima with him, experiment with spoken-word, liturgy, teaching modalities and compassionate community building. Our full-house collaborative community Tisha b’Av experience was a highlight so far in our creative synergy. Grateful and excited for what’s to come!”

Throughout his life, Cantor Juval tries to encompass Jewish values like Shir Hadash (new song), Ahavat Hinam (baseless love), and Gemilut Hasadim (loving kindness). “I have this ability to hopefully activate somebody else’s desire to connect with our tradition through a song, wordless melody, or teaching is an awesome realization,” he said.

Looking to the future, Cantor Juval thinks it will be exciting to answer the question of what an LGBTQ space looks like “in a world where, at least in the Reform Jewish scene, there’s more and more openness toward LGBTQ families and individuals.” He’d like to see the community welcome people in non-heteronormative and non-monogamous relationships; expand the space of inclusion for the transgender community, Jews of color, and Jews by choice; lift up those not in relationships as well as those without children; and also foster a new generation of congregants through expansion of the BCC school. Cantor Juval would also like to encourage greater musical participation by lay leadership through mentorship, specialized training, and ongoing dialogue.

“I’m mainly grateful for the trust and playground that I get to have and that’s put in my lap,” he said. “99% of the time I’m asking to do something, and I just get the green light to do it. And that’s been really, really wonderful.”

This article was taken from G’vanim Issue 48 vol 1, September/October 2019 Check out the full issue

One Comment on “Cantor Juval Porat Celebrates 10 Years With BCC”

  • Leslie Bowdach October 5, 2019 pm31 4:37 pm . Reply

    Cantor Juval has been a great asset yo BCC and an inspiration to all who have met him. He is not only an amazing Cantor but you feel like he is really a close friend as well.
    Thank you Cantor Juval for all that you do .
    Yael Maxwell DaVita – beautifully written

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