April 19, 2024 -

A Transformational Moment

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Cantor Vladimir Lapin during the Shabbat Evening Service celebrating his installation, April 9, 2021.

To the members of this sacred community, special honored guests, my beloved friends, dear colleagues and my wonderful family…thank you so much for being here with me on this holy Shabbat.

There are transformational moments one remembers throughout their entire their life. Tonight is one of mine. I am honored, humbled, and filled with overwhelming gratitude to be here virtually before you as the cantor of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple.

Exactly 27 years ago, I stood on the bimah at Temple Beth Ami in Northeast Philadelphia as I became a bar mitzvah. I remember only a few details of that day:

  • I loved seeing my entire family together celebrating a Jewish milestone, my Jewish milestone, something that would have been unimaginable only years prior in the Soviet Union. I loved feeling part of a greater Jewish community.
  • I loved the party that we had afterwards in the basement of a Russian restaurant, with toasts, live music, and the clinking of silverware.
  • I loved that my parents decided that even though they themselves didn’t celebrate their own Jewish milestones, they put everything into making sure that I was able and free to do so. In that moment, I wanted to celebrate my Judaism. I had the freedom to do so, and I don’t take that for granted. 

Here we are, 27 years later, with the same Torah portion, Sh’mini, celebrating a different milestone, a cantorial installation – something beyond the dreams of my 13-year-old self. Tonight, at this incredible personal and communal milestone, I am filled with gratitude.

And, as I share these words with you tonight, I am deeply aware that I would not be here if it weren’t for Cantor Sarah Sager. Cantor Sager, you have built a legacy rooted in Torah and love of this sacred community. You paved the way for today’s dynamic cantorate, you’ve inspired countless young men and women, and touched and nurtured the lives of so many. I am humbled to be here following your sacred work. May you continue inspiring us for many years to come and may you go from strength to strength. Thank you.

I would like to offer my immense gratitude to Rabbi Rachel Steiner, and Cantor Claire Franco for being here with us tonight. Having you both speak here tonight means more than you can imagine.

Rabbi Steiner, you have inspired me from the moment that I met you. You are a gift to the rabbinate, to the Barnert community, and to the greater Jewish world. Over these many years, I have been so lucky to learn from you! I hope that learning continues. Thank you for your guidance, constant support, and most importantly, for your awesome friendship. It means the world. 

Cantor Claire Franco – I’m so grateful for your kind words, and for your model leadership. Your guidance, mentorship and friendship inspires me endlessly. I am touched and honored that you’re with us on this Shabbat. The American Cantorate is blessed to have you as a leader, and I am blessed to have you as a friend.

Thank you to the wonderful cantorial search committee guided by Julie Raskind and Michele Krantz – who made the recommendation that I be hired. I don’t know too many other cantors who loved the placement process as much as I did! I am so grateful to you all for your time, energy and commitment to building this sacred relationship with me. And thank you to the cantorial transitional committee headed by Pam Berkson and Leah Taylor. You made my family become integrated into the community and ensured that we feel at home right away. Given the time in which we are living, that in itself is a miracle.

To the leadership of Fairmount Temple and to Temple President, Todd Silverman – thank you for your continual support and encouragement. Your work behind the scenes makes this community vibrant, and I am so grateful to you for your kindness and leadership.

To the two communities that have helped form me into the cantor that I am today: Barnert Temple and Temple Beth-El of Great Neck. At the conclusion of her presidential campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren said this about transitions: “when I left one place, I took everything I’d learned before and all the good ideas that were tucked into my brain and all the good friends that were tucked in my heart, and I brought it all forward with me—and it became part of what I did next.” To these two sacred communities that I very much love – I carry you with me – your friendship, your love, your Torah, are ever-present with me, and I am grateful for that.

Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is blessed in so many ways – but two of its brightest blessings are Rabbi Rob Nosanchuk and Rabbi Josh Caruso. This, of course doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but I have to say this – how lucky am I to get to serve the community with these two mensches? Rabbi Nosanchuk and Rabbi Caruso, Rob and Josh, thank you for your inspiring work, for your warmth, for your soaring spirits, and for just being you. Throughout our very first meetings way back in November 2019 (feels like a different era), I felt as if I was truly heard and truly seen…almost a year into working with you that feeling has only been reinforced. It is a blessing to be able to share in the sacred work that we do, daily. Thank you.

I share my gratitude to the amazing Fairmount Temple Staff – To Steve Borstein, Staci Cohen, Diane Lavin, Jane Mayers, Wendy Jacobson, Laura Munson, Barry Shapiro, Yan Shepteban, Julie Moss, Elizabeth Kleckner, Joey Laidman, Yael Casselberry, Jenny Marmaros, Barbara Smith, Theresa Lapin, Chuck Schwed, Sherman Jones, Desmond Jones and Michael Cunningham. You make this temple, this community, come alive every day, you make the impossible possible, and I am grateful to each and everyone of you. To David Gooding – I treasure any opportunity I can get to sing with you. I can’t wait to continue creating sacred music with you. It’s always a privilege.

To my family, to my mom, dad, and sister – you had no intention of raising a cantor, but you did. I learned and continue to learn from all of you. You taught me invaluable leadership skills and a deep, unshakable devotion to the Jewish people. You showed me the joy of working with music and children, you pushed me to take creative risks. My family is truly the tree of my life that sustains me and gives me roots, and for that I am eternally grateful.

To my wife, to Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum. You brighten the darkest day, and you make the brightest day even sunnier. I am continually inspired by your words and deeds, by your spirit, by your integrity, and most importantly, by your love. Thank you.

In his essay, the Vocation of the Cantor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shares this story:

There was once a beloved rabbi living in Eastern Europe, among whose followers were many cantors. Their custom was to gather at the rabbi’s office and study with him for the Shabbat which would precede Rosh Hashanah. At the end of their session they would ask him for his blessing that their prayers on Rosh Hashanah be heard. Once one of the cantors entered the rabbi’s office and asked permission to leave early. When the rabbi asked him, why he was in such a hurry to leave, the cantor replied, “I must return home in order to go through the prayer book for the holidays and to take a look at the notes.” The rabbi replied, “Why should you go through the prayer book of the notes; they are the same as last year. It is more important to go through your own life, and take a look at your own deeds. For you are not the same as you were a year ago.” The cantor was no longer in a hurry to leave.

And so, I think back again to 27 years ago…nervously standing on that bimah, next to the rabbi and looking out at the congregation. What have I learned, what am I bringing with me in this next chapter? Am I still nervous? Absolutely I am! Perhaps not as much as a 13-year-old about to chant the haftarah but still! Am I still curious about Judaism? Unconditionally yes! I’m not looking at my notes, or at the words, I’m looking at the hearts, and the souls, and I feel a sense of wholeness thinking about the relationships I’ve built, and will God-willing, continue to build. 

O God, I thank you for the privilege and gift of working with this incredible congregation and in this community — I pray for the strength to be worthy of the honor.  As cantor of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, may my actions be sacred, may my words and songs truly be ones of Torah, and may I have the joy of growing, learning and building relationships with this community for many years to come. From the depth of my heart, thank you for this gift of a lifetime.  Together may we all go from strength to strength, ken y’hi ratzon.