How an Ohio girl became one of the first female cantors

Perryne Anker did not set out to be one of the country’s first female cantors. It just sort of happened, the result of years of hard work, a passion for Jewish music, a knack for diplomacy and no small amount of talent. On Dec. 7, the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), a 14-year-old “transdenominational” school on Wilshire Boulevard that offers cantorial, rabbinical and chaplaincy programs, will honor the Sherman Oaks resident at an afternoon concert and tea. Proceeds from the event will establish a Jewish music scholar-in-residence program at the school in Anker’s name.

Now, 76, Anker is known to many simply by her distinctive first name (the story goes that she was expected to be a boy named Perry, and her father, off the cuff, came up with the female variation Perryne). She has taught at AJR-CA since its inception and holds the title of associate dean, specializing in repertoire, helping students to hone songs until they are seamless, beautiful and compelling. On a recent morning, she offered a reporter a chance to sit in on a private lesson with third-year cantorial student Lily Tash at Anker’s home studio.

The lesson started with vocalizations. Anker played her Gulbransen upright piano while Tash stood next to her singing “Tu Amore” over and over again. They did the same with “me, may, ma, mo, moo.” All the while Anker listened intently, keeping up a steady stream of banter.


“You have to think when you vocalize constantly. You have to be a machine.”

“Whatever you did, do it again. Couldn’t be better.” 

“I don’t like that last note.”

“I don’t think you are being hard enough on yourself when you vocalize.”

“Good, babe! That’s singing. Woo! I really like that.”

“Be careful here. You’re getting into [a] danger zone.”

Together they spent the second half of the lesson working on a Hebrew and English song Tash planned to sing at an upcoming concert. Anker sang a line, and Tash repeated it. To hear them work in tandem in such an intimate setting, their voices clear and sweet and strong, was a huge treat.

Neither of Anker’s parents was a musician. Her dad was a salesman, her mom a homemaker. But, Anker said, “We always had music in our house. I grew up listening to all kinds of music.” 

Nor was her family particularly religious. They attended synagogue on major holidays, but at the age of 14, Anker started singing at their conservative, Cleveland synagogue, Temple on the Heights B’nai Jeshurun. It didn’t take long for the temple’s legendary cantor, Saul Meisels, to recognize the young singer’s potential. Soon, Anker was performing with the adult choir during Friday night services and singing solos. Never mind the fact that at the time, she couldn’t read Hebrew.

“In those days, girls didn’t study Hebrew,” she said. 

Even though Anker didn’t understand all of the music she was performing, she fell in love with it. “I loved the minor keys,” she said, “the sensitivity of it. I was singing in Yiddish and singing in Hebrew, and I just felt it. It just came out of me.” However, she added, “I never had a dream of being a cantor, because women didn’t do it.” 

When Anker was 15, Meisels encouraged her to attend a summer music program at Indian Hill Music Workshop in Stockbridge, Mass. This, she said, marked “the most significant change musically in my life. … It was for kind-of-prodigy young musicians. That opened the door to … my whole professional career. It changed my life. My emphasis turned to classical music.” she said. Anker attended two summers in a row. Meisels then arranged for her to audition for the Juilliard School in New York, arguably the country’s most esteemed music conservatory, and the result was a full scholarship. But she still had to find a way to pay for her living expenses. So, once again, Anker started singing in synagogues on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as at area churches on Sundays, to make money.

Anker had planned to pursue a master’s degree following her graduation from Juilliard, and from all appearances, she was on her way to a successful music career in New York, already cast as the lead in an upcoming opera premiere. But she had also planned a trip to visit her parents, who had moved to Los Angeles. And there, instead, she ended up falling in love, getting married and settling down. 

Shortly after Anker and her then-husband had their first child, Anker heard about a new temple being formed, to be named for Stephen S. Wise. “So I went to meet with the rabbi, Isaiah Zeldin,” she said. “That was the beginning of my real Jewish singing career.”

Although her intentions were modest — she just wanted to sing in the temple’s choir — slowly but surely she ended up doing quite a bit more: teaching in the Sunday school and singing duets during Friday night services with Cantor Richard Silverman, who even began writing music for her. 

It was at this point, Anker said, that she decided she needed to up her game. “Having been a serious music student at Juilliard, you don’t just do things by the seat of your pants. I was wanting to be authentic, to really study the music and start to study Hebrew.” She began attending cantorial workshops with William Sharlin, Leo Baeck Temple’s cantor, but not yet with the intention of becoming a cantor. She was the only woman in the class at first. But, she underscores, “I never set out to break the barrier,” a claim she admits, “might be anti-feminist.”

Then one day, Rabbi Zeldin and Cantor Silverman sat down with her. “[They] said, ‘You have been doing this a long time. This has become your life, and you should pursue it. You should know more, and we want to give you the opportunity to learn more.’ ” Anker started conducting services on her own at Stephen S. Wise. 

She recalls the first time she had to sing the Kol Nidre, on the eve of Yom Kippur. “The night before Kol Nidre, I was at a rehearsal. I suddenly felt like I had no voice. My parents were baby-sitting. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I felt like I was getting laryngitis. My father said to me, ‘That’s because you don’t have a role model. That’s because you never heard a women sing Kol Nidre.’ ” That acknowledgement was all Anker needed.

In 1980, she became the sole cantor at Beth Sholom Temple, now Beth Shir Shalom, in Santa Monica, and, by then separated from her first husband, it is also where she met her current husband, now-retired Judge Robert Schnider. She remained in this position until 1992. She never received a formal cantorial degree, in part because there were no cantorial schools on the West Coast at the time; AJR-CA has the first. By now, she has gone on to mentor many more women in the field, helping to make it as diverse as the rabbinate.

Today, Anker is happy to own her achievement. And at the December event, she will receive her honorary master’s degree, “after having half of it my whole life, practically,” she joked. It’s certainly a new world. According to Anker, more female clergy than male are graduating. 

And does Anker have any plans to slow down?  

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop my work,” she said. She does cherish time spent with her four grown sons and seven grandchildren, all of whom are local. And she and her husband do a lot of traveling. But she loves teaching, as well as the “life cycle stuff” she does, like performing at weddings, funerals and baby namings.

“The joy of this profession for me, and the privilege, is being involved in people’s lives from birth to death, helping them to weave their way through joy and tragedy,” she said. “I really consider it an honor and a privilege. As a result, I know I am part of so many people’s lives, even though my children would make fun of me, when we were in public places, and someone would say, ‘Oh I remember you were my bar mitzvah teacher,’ or, ‘You married me.’ It’s just wonderful.”

For tickets to the event, contact Lauren S. Goldner at (213) 884-4133, ext. 119, or

Power to the table

While we were having our meals in the sukkah this year, I kept thinking about another holiday. This is odd because Sukkot has a strong and distinctive personality. The very idea of building a sukkah is unusual. For eight days, this little hut is the center of our lives, which, in Jewish terms, means it’s where we eat.

The sukkah itself conveys important symbols, from the impermanence of life to our connection with our wandering ancestors to the Jewish ideals of humility and gratitude. Countless sermons and essays have been written on the many layers of rich meaning associated with this holiday.

It’s no surprise, then, that when you’re inside a sukkah, it is the sukkah that is the star of the show, especially when it’s beautifully decorated. And when words of Torah are spoken, those words usually connect directly to the uniqueness of the holiday.

This year, though, my mind wandered elsewhere. As we celebrated night after night in our little hut, it struck me that Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday that isolates so clearly the most sublime Jewish ritual of all — the family table. As beautiful as our sukkah was (thanks to my daughter Eva), my thoughts were mostly on the table.

It was as if Sukkot morphed into “the holiday of the table” — the holiday in which we are commanded to take our tables outside and give them only minimal protection. The sukkah thus became the spiritual envelope for the real star of the show — the table where we shared our festive meals.

Maybe it was simply that the meals themselves reminded me so much of our weekly Friday night meals — only, we were having them inside a hut. Instead of distracting me, the hut focused my attention on the human gathering. I realized the power of a table to bring people together. After all, is any ritual more essential to our humanity than the sharing of a meal around a table?

And has any ritual been more essential to the survival of Judaism than the weekly gathering around the Shabbat table?

It always blows me away to imagine my distant ancestors in some Moroccan village sitting at their own table and reciting the exact same blessings we do on a Friday night — and probably eating the same spicy fish. It’s what all our ancestors scattered around the globe have done for millennia: Once a week, they sat around the Shabbat table and made it holy.

It also impresses me that 3,300 years ago at Sinai, after the Jews were released from bondage, a ritual was born that seemed to anticipate our modern-day version of slavery — our addiction to smartphones. Is there a smarter antidote to this addiction than the weekly holiday of Shabbat, where we turn it all off and reconnect with one another and with everything real? That human connection around a table is what I responded to, more than anything, inside the sukkah this year.

When I mentioned these ideas last week at a Sukkot lunch with students and staff of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), who share our building in Koreatown, I was delighted to receive a follow-up email from AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy, elaborating on the importance of the table in Jewish tradition.

Among other things, he pointed out that the codification of Jewish law, compiled centuries ago by Rabbi Joseph Caro, is called the “prepared table” (Shulchan Arukh). “For me it meant that our table is now our altar,” Rabbi Levy wrote. “A sacred place at which we offer the precious gifts each of us brings to the table and receive the gifts everyone else brings.”

Rabbi Levy spoke of the table as “the place where we come together to nurture and nourish each other,” and he mentioned an insightful book titled “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” by Rachel Naomi Remen.

“Everybody is a story,” Remen writes in her introduction. “When I was a child, people sat around the kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along.”

The continuation of the great Jewish story has depended not on the quality of the structures we’ve built, but on the quality of the tables we’ve set. It is around these tables that the values, stories and wisdom of our tradition have been handed down from one generation to the next.

Placing our holy table inside a humble hut during the holiday of Sukkot dramatizes its power and reminds us to continue this transcendent ritual once we return home.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

AJR-CA dedicates new campus

With Chanukah marking the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees’ defeat of Judea’s Seleucid rulers more than 2,000 years ago, the week of the holiday turned out to be the perfect time for the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) to celebrate the opening of its new campus in Koreatown. 

More than 150 people showed up Nov. 24 for a hanukat habayit (“dedication of the home”) party that marked a new beginning for the school, which moved from a location on the property of Hillel at UCLA to 3250 Wilshire Blvd. in September.

“It’s a dedication. Chanukah was a rededication of the temple, [and] here we had a rededication for the academy and its new space,” AJR-CA president Tamar Frankiel told the Journal.

Founded in 2000, AJR-CA is a transdemoninational, rabbinical, chaplaincy and cantorial school. It strives to be a part of the puzzle of a Jewish landscape that — according to the school — had previously left out community members interested in a career at the pulpit but who did not affiliate with any of the major movements. 

Attendees at the event, which took place just days before the first night of Chanukah, included Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy. They came together on a rooftop courtyard at the seminary’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to enjoy live music, food, guest speakers and more. 

Among the speakers were Frankiel; Imam Jihad Turk, president-designate of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University; Rabbi Steven Leder, spiritual leader of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT); and the Rev. David Jamir, senior pastor of Rosewood UMC Los Angeles.

AJR-CA, which is located one block west of Vermont Avenue, now sits within close distance of both WBT and Rosewood UMC, a Methodist church. This represents the diversity of the faith communities in the Koreatown area, Frankiel told the Journal.

Representatives of those institutions were among a “wide variety of people from across the community, old supporters, new supporters [and] alumni,” who turned out for the event, Frankiel said. 

There was plenty to celebrate. The event featured room-naming ceremonies for the 6,500-square-foot campus. Mezuzahs were installed, and attendees were treated to a tour of the campus artwork.

 “It was indeed a hanukat habayit,” AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy said in an e-mail to the Journal. “Perhaps not as momentous as the first Hanukkah of the [S]econd temple over 2,000 years ago, but in our own unique way part of the chain and fabric of Jewish religious history past, present and future.”

Academy for Jewish Religion moves to Koreatown

For the first time since the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJR-CA), was founded 13 years ago, the pluralistic institution that trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains has its own space. The school moved from Westwood into the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles earlier this month.

“It just seemed like the right place, the right time, and that’s why we moved. And everyone is very excited about it,” said Tamar Frankiel, president of the transdenominational seminary.

With the move, AJR-CA has joined Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Jewish Journal in an office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., near Vermont Avenue. The 6,500-square-foot space, which includes six classrooms, eight administrative offices, a library and a faculty lounge, is adjacent to a large outdoor terrace area shared by the building’s tenants.

Several factors prompted the move from Westwood, where the school outgrew the campus it had been sharing on the property of the Hillel at UCLA. The incoming AJR-CA class is 40 percent larger than the 2013 graduating class, Frankiel said.  

While Koreatown is not exactly thought of as a conventionally Jewish area, times are changing: an increasing number of Jews are living and praying in and around Koreatown, including with the recent reopening of the renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

None of this has been lost on Frankiel. 

“We like to think that we’re moving to an urban neighborhood, a neighborhood growing in terms of Jewish institutions and accessible to different Jewish populations,” she said.

Unfortunately, some among the school’s 65 students will have a longer commute than before, Frankiel said. But there’s always public transportation — the location is near the Wilshire-Vermont subway stop and several bus stops. 

Frankiel believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Everyone who has been there has been like, ‘Wow! This is so great.’ So I feel wonderful about it, and so does everyone who has come to see the space.”

Rabbi Ron Li-Paz’s long and winding road

Ron Li-Paz certainly took the long way to the rabbinate.

The experienced cantor and spiritual leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue (VOS) describes his recent ordination at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) as one of the most transformational experiences of his life. But it was never obvious that the now-44-year-old would one day take a spiritual path. 

During his 20s, Li-Paz of Agoura Hills recalls feeling indifferent toward his faith, even though he grew up in a devout Jewish household. Born in Haifa, he moved to the United States in 1971. 

He served for three years in the U.S. Air Force in England doing base operations and flight planning and then switched to a career in theater and broadcasting, including work for the BBC. He later changed directions again, becoming a management consultant and helping international corporations create communications strategies. 

Restless and in search of his true calling, Li-Paz took up opera singing in his 30s and found great success. Having studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and trained for opera with his father, Michael, world-renowned opera singer Giorgio Tozzi and others, Li-Paz traveled the world, singing as a soloist in some of the world’s greatest cities and theaters. In Los Angeles, he sang in places like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

It was gratifying work, but something still wasn’t quite right, Li-Paz said. The frequent traveling for concerts meant he was often away from his family for extended periods, and that didn’t sit well with his Jewish values. 

“I remember my dad saying to me, ‘I’m not sure [opera] is a very Jewish profession,’ ” Li-Paz recalled. “I knew what he meant: How can you be in a profession where, months at a time, you’re away from your family? And that was really the painful truth.”

However, there was another aspect of his life that made sense. In between traveling as an opera singer, Li-Paz started singing at temple. In 1996, he became cantor at VOS, which worships at the Hilton Woodland Hills/Los Angeles and, during the summer, at Oak Canyon Community Park in Oak Park. He combined his cantorial work with opera singing for a decade until he became the temple’s sole spiritual leader and decided to dedicate himself to Judaism. 

Li-Paz said he learned to be a cantor through self-study and from his father, who served as the cantor of Creative Arts Temple in Los Angeles and sang during the High Holy Days at a number of area shuls.

Seven years ago, when retiring Rabbi Jerry Fisher asked Li-Paz to become the full-time spiritual leader of VOS, a transdenominational synagogue, the latter felt it wasn’t enough to simply accept the new role without additional training. He wanted to become an ordained rabbi himself.

Li-Paz had already acted as part-time spiritual leader as well as cantor for several years at the synagogue, and there were fast-track options available to help him achieve his goal. Possibilities included online programs with minimal time requirements or going to another rabbi to get ordained, he said. 

Instead, he opted for six years of disciplined study, taking classes three days a week at AJR-CA, which also is transdenominational. He pored over books in between the daily demands of weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs and other synagogue duties.

“It wasn’t that I wanted a title, it’s that I wanted the education,” Li-Paz explained. “I couldn’t stand in front of a congregation without enriching what I could offer them.”

On June 10, his efforts finally paid off when — with his wife, Bronwen, two children and a very proud father watching — Li-Paz was ordained as a rabbi during a ceremony at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air.

The life-changing moment ranked alongside his marriage and the births of his children, he said. 

“I’ve been a part of thousands of services and ceremonies, and this was just incredible,” Li-Paz said. “The moment of being called ‘rabbi’ for the first time in your life after so many years of hard work is pretty awe-inspiring.” 

Tamar Frankiel, president of AJR-CA, said it’s not unusual for people to seek second careers in the clergy. About half of the students at the seminary come from non-religious careers, she said. Graduates include architects, people from the film industry and scientists, among others, she indicated. 

“Often I think it’s as people become more mature, they’re looking deeper within themselves, they’re looking more at the bigger purpose of their life,” Frankiel said. “Our institution really emphasizes the support for, you might call it a spiritual quest, or a deepening of purpose.”

Frankiel added that Li-Paz is unusual in that he has a broad range of skills.

“He’s an extraordinarily talented person musically as well as intellectually,” she said. “You don’t get so many people who are both rabbis and cantors.”

Larry Rudner, president of VOS, which has a membership of about 700 families, said Li-Paz’s ordination by a respected seminary adds a lot to the synagogue, in part by connecting it with the larger rabbinic community. But, he added, he’s always been a believer in his spiritual leader.

“He’s changed my life,” Rudner said. “It’s this charisma that he has. There’s just this feeling from him that [he’s] someone special.”

Li-Paz has proven particularly popular with kids, and there has been a marked increase in the participation of young families since he became spiritual leader, Rudner said.

For Li-Paz, his responsibilities at VOS won’t change because he’s a rabbi. However, his journey has given him a much fuller understanding of Judaism to share with his congregation.

“I’ve been leading a community, and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” Li-Paz said. “It’s still very good to have worked this hard to now be able to stand alongside my colleagues as a rabbi.”

Orthodox woman, a first

In a groundbreaking appointment, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA), has selected Tamar Frankiel as its new president, making her the first Orthodox woman to lead an American rabbinical school.

Frankiel, 66, is a professor of comparative religion and an expert on Jewish mysticism. 

The author of a widely used textbook on Christianity and several books on Judaism and Jewish women’s practice, Frankiel has taught since 2002 at AJR,CA, a transdenominational seminary at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA. She has served there as dean of students, dean of academic affairs and, most recently, as  provost.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of L.A. rabbis seeking to approach Jewish study from multiple perspectives, AJR,CA trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains. It originally was affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but one year after its founding, the West Coast school became an independent institution. 

According to Frankiel, AJR,CA now counts 65 students across three programs, some 40 of whom are rabbinical students. 

“We’re growing into a mature institution,” Frankiel said in a phone interview. “My job is to build on the foundation and bring more people into the orbit of AJR,CA.” 

Frankiel succeeds outgoing president Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also is Orthodox and who led AJR,CA beginning in 2008. Frankiel was appointed to the position Jan. 9 by the institution’s board of directors following a national search.

For an institution widely considered to be liberal, Frankiel said that “it’s perhaps unusual that two presidents in a row are Orthodox or observant.” She attributed that fact to the “pluralism of the school and the respect AJR,CA has for tradition.”

Graduates of AJR,CA’s five-year rabbinic training program should be fluent in both traditional and more liberal streams of Judaism, including Reform and Renewal, Frankiel said. 

“The depth of pluralism at the academy is quite amazing. Faculty from all different denominations teach there, and it’s the way I think Jewish life should grow and develop.”

As dean of academic affairs, Frankiel was instrumental in creating Claremont Lincoln University, a collaborative initiative between AJR,CA, the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California. AJR,CA received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring faculty from the three different faith institutions together for religious and textual study. The next step, Frankiel said, will be the production of an interfaith conference.

Raised in Ohio in a non-Jewish home, Frankiel converted to Judaism in 1979. She married Hershel Frankiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, who was becoming more religiously observant at the time they met. Together they created a traditional Jewish home and raised five children in the Fairfax district.

Frankiel earned her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago and has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford University and Princeton University. 

She wrote several books on religion in America, including “Gospel Hymns and Social Religion” and “California’s Spiritual Frontiers.” Her later works include “The Gift of Kabbalah” and “Entering the Temple of Dreams,” a Jewish guide to nighttime prayer and meditation for people of all faiths, which she co-authored with Judy Greenfeld. She also is the author of “The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.”

AJR-CA graduates 10th class of transdenominational rabbis

The Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), graduated its 10th class of rabbinic and cantorial ordinees last month. The transdenominational seminary has graduated close to 90 rabbis, cantors and chaplains since 2003, and nearly all have found work in Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and non-denominational synagogues, as well as in schools, hospitals and other institutions. Many of the graduates of AJR-CA, based at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA, came to the academy after full careers in other fields.

Five rabbis and one cantor were ordained June 10 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. They are: Rabbi David Baron, who will continue his primary work in the high-tech industry, while also writing a midrashic novel and providing spiritual guidance in the San Diego Jewish community; Rabbi Lisa Bock, who will serve as rabbi of Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo; Rabbi Elihu Moshe Gevirtz, who will be an educator at Camp Ramah in California’s organic agriculture program; Rabbi Susan Beaglehole Goldberg, who will continue to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, and as Eastside Outreach Coordinator for Wilshire Boulevard Temple; Rabbi Yisraela Sherwood Tubman, who will be the chaplain at Hallmark West Hills Assisted Living; and
Cantor Frances N. Burgess, who will be the music director at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.