Welcoming Susan Bortnick as WHC’s Third Senior Cantor

Below is a transcript of the remarks Cantor Susan Bortnick delivered to the Congregation during Shabbat worship on Friday, October 29, 2021 during her official installation as WHC’s Third Senior Cantor.

Shabbat Shalom. 

As I stand here this evening, I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support I have received from you as my Installation has approached.  For more than two decades, this congregation has supported me professionally and personally, always encouraging me to grow and develop my cantorate in a manner that serves the Temple and me.  These past 20 years have passed in what seems like the blink of an eye, yet when I remember specific moments shared with each of you, the years are clear and vivid, as if each moment happened just yesterday. 

The musical tradition here at Washington Hebrew Congregation is exemplary.  For much of the 20th century, the masterful composer Herman Berlinski held the title of Music Director.  He was followed by the very talented and highly respected Cantor Roy Garber, Washington Hebrew Congregation’s first cantor, whose yartzeit was last Shabbat.  Following Cantor Garber’s untimely death, Cantor Mikhail Manevich continued the legacy of our first-rate musical program.  His artistry and beautiful tenor voice, along with his menschlikeit, guided our congregation for over 30 years.   

When I arrived here at Washington Hebrew, I turned 27 the day after I began.  Only the third cantor in Washington Hebrew’s then 150-year history and the congregation’s first female cantor.  A few of my professors questioned my decision to become an assistant cantor, rather than seeking a position where I would be the only cantor.  However, I welcomed the opportunity to learn and grow under Cantor Manevich.  For 18 years, I had the privilege of learning from and collaborating with Cantor Manevich.  Through our partnership, we introduced new musical styles and delighted the congregation with our duets, concerts, and musical explorations.  Coming to Washington Hebrew is a decision I have always looked back on with gratitude – for the professional opportunities I have been afforded and the role Washington Hebrew has played in my personal life.   

At my first High Holy Day services in September 2001 here at Washington Hebrew, I met a young man who had also just moved to DC.  Each year since our fateful meeting in the Rabbinic Atrium, as part of our Rosh Hashana preparation, David and I recount the years of our relationship.  Washington Hebrew was not just the place of our meeting, but has been the backdrop to our lives and the lives of our daughters ever since.  Like many of you, our wedding blessing took place in the chapel, as did our three daughters’ namings.  Our girls have attended the Early Childhood Center, Religious School, and Upper School.  Naomi’s bat mitzvah was held in the chapel two years ago and next year, Eliya will have her bat mitzvah.  Before we know it, Mikala will as well.  Over the years, David and I have created friendships with the parents we have traveled this journey with, and the years have been filled with shared meals, holiday celebrations, and many other occasions that have provided our family with a lifetime of Jewish memories. 

As I am installed as the third Senior Cantor in Washington Hebrew Congregation’s history, I intend to provide you with the same Jewish memories you have afforded me and my family.  My goal as a cantor has always been, and will continue to be, to connect you with your Judaism.  Helping you find meaning in our sacred tradition and offering you ways to enhance and express your life through your Judaism is what I see as my ultimate purpose.  To accomplish this, I will use all of my abilities.  I will continue to teach and share my knowledge of the Jewish faith, making it relevant to each of you in our conversations, classes, and services.  To aid that, I pledge to continue to expand my own knowledge in all aspects of Judaism.   

I will continue to join with you and your families at your life cycle events, both joyous and difficult, and to be present with you when you are in need of pastoral care.  Holding your hand in moments of need, and dancing with you at your simchas brings me fulfillment, and I am grateful to you for allowing me to be with you as you journey through life.   

I vow to be a leader in this Congregation, always representing you and the Jewish people as a whole, with dignity.  I look forward to being a resource to all who come to work in the congregation, and I hope to have the opportunity to train new clergy and staff, sharing my knowledge and showing by example what it means to spiritually lead, and be present for, a congregation. 

Finally, I intend to continue the esteemed musical legacy that has been entrusted to me.  We will continue to experiment with new music, always seeking the highest quality and most beautiful music and musicians, while at the same time preserving the musical history that has made this congregation a leader in our movement.   

Before I close, I must thank our rabbis, Rabbi Lustig, Rabbi Shankman, Rabbi Miller, and Rabbi Fischel for their camaraderie and support.  Guiding this congregation alongside you is a privilege.  To Cantor Manevich, thank you for two decades of friendship and partnership.  May you and Ema have many years ahead filled with travel and family simchas.  Thank you to Mark Director and all of the previous presidents and board members, especially those who have served on my professional development committee.  It has been an honor working with you over these past 20 years.  Your dedication to Washington Hebrew is unparalleled.  To Stephanie Tankel and all of our educators, thank you for your friendship and being partners in this journey.  To the Senior Staff, administrative staff, and maintenance staff here at Washington Hebrew, thank you for all you do to keep the congregation running smoothly.  With the foundation you provide, we are able to continuously meet the needs of our congregants.  A special thank you to David Vise, who chaired the Cantorial Search committee 20 years ago that selected me as Washington Hebrew’s first assistant cantor, along with all the members of the committee.  As well, to Nell Shapiro for spearheading my transition to Senior Cantor.  Thank you to Susan Fink, Stephanie Pelmoter, and Sloane Menkes for participating this evening.  You each represent the multitude of families with whom I have shared family simchas and friendships.  Thank you to my good friend, Cantor Seth Warner, for his words this evening and friendship over the past 24 years. 

Finally, thank you, my congregants and friends.  You have always welcomed me into your families, shared your life cycle events with me, and allowed me to walk your Jewish journey with you.  Serving you is truly an honor. 

You can show your love and support for Cantor Bortnick on this momentous occasion of her Installation by making a donation in her honor to Yad B’Yad, WHC’s Annual Fund.


More Photos from Cantor Bortnick’s Installation: