Do you know the Cantor’s fascinating backstory, like her extensive theater training? Learn about her family, her figurative and literal journeys to Bet Shalom, her Jewish path and more.
Cantor Havilio, the months of mainly online services and programs since you joined us last July have made it hard to get to know you personally. So tell us about your family.
My mom Mary was a pioneer in the Hospice Movement, starting here in Minnesota at the Anoka County Hospital, and now living in Madison. My father was an accountant with Ernst and Young; he lives mostly in Milwaukee and partly in Eagle River, WI. I have family all over WI and some here in Minnesota. My husband Shmulik Havilio and I met in Milwaukee, WI when he was visiting and participating in a ceremony for Israel’s Memorial and Independence Day in May 2001 at the synagogue I was serving. His brother-in-law, Amir Zohar, had a connection with the Milwaukee Jewish community through Federation’s Partnership 2000 program and visited Milwaukee in October 2000. A couple of weeks later he was tragically killed in a terrorist incident when he was serving his Reserve duty. The sheliach of the community, Nir Barkin invited Shmulik to speak about Amir in the ceremony where I was the cantor. I was the first woman cantor Shmulik had ever met. I went off the next year to continue my work on the vital connection between theater and prayer in the Performance Studies division of Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. The Twin Towers fell on 9/11 just weeks after I started my program. My response? I flew to Israel during Sukkot, and that is when HUC in Jerusalem started asking me to teach in the first year program and the Israeli Rabbinic Program. Shmulik and I had kept in touch; when I arrived in September 2002, he picked me and my golden retriever Mazel up at the airport. Two years later we were married, and now we have three boys, Nadav,15, Tal,13 and Noam 11 and a 5 year old Tibetan Terrier named Charlie.
Please tell us about your time at HUC/JIR in Jerusalem.
In 2002 Hebrew Union College invited me to be the associate Cantor of the Jerusalem campus where I worked with every Cantorial, Rabbinic and Education student in their Year in Israel Program. All HUC students spend their first year of studies in Jerusalem in a Hebrew Intensive (Ulpan) and living in Jewish time in the State of Israel. While I worked intensely with cantorial students, I was also in charge of teaching every student Torah cantillation and how to teach it. I co-led the Prayer Workshop with the Rabbi of the Year in Israel program, where I worked with all of the students in prayer leading skills. In 2008 I was promoted to Head of Cantorial Studies in Jerusalem following Cantor Eliyahu Schleifer’s retirement.
So why did you decide to move on from that position?
In 2018-19 I was on sabbatical, so we took the opportunity to come back to the Midwest when Temple Israel in Minneapolis needed an Interim Cantor. It was a great opportunity to be close to my family in Wisconsin and Minnesota. During that year I realized again how much I love being a congregational cantor. I thrive working with all ages of people who are searching for community and meaningful ritual through our beautiful Jewish tradition. When I returned to HUC it was clear to me that after 18 years I was so very ready to return to being a cantor in a congregation.
How did you reconnect with Bet Shalom?
The Union of Reform Judaism has two main branches, the CCAR (rabbinic council) and the ACC (cantorial council), that have a placement system where I saw that Bet Shalom was searching for a cantor. I was very excited to apply for the position because I remembered a beautiful community Holocaust memorial service there that my family and I attended. I was really moved by the warmth and the authentic prayer leading from the bima from Rabbi Locketz and Rabbi Crimmings. And the community was so welcoming and genuine. Rabbi Locketz led a congregational trip to Israel at the end of February. The group happened to attend a Friday evening service at a Jerusalem synagogue where I was leading music from the bima! I saw all of your community smiling at me and really felt a wonderful connection. When I came to the interview it was clear to me that your home felt like mine! As I was waiting for my flight back to Israel at JFK, Rabbi Locketz called to tell me that they wanted to offer me the position.
So you had an interesting trip back to the US?
During the COVID lockdown all I could think of was how we were going to move to the US at this difficult time. I did not want to fly through NY or NJ. We booked our tickets on Air Canada (also because they would fly my dog) through Toronto to Minneapolis. After a month, I received notification that we could not land in Minneapolis but had to go through Chicago, O’Hare. I could handle this because we rented a van and thought to drive past my mom in Madison and carry on to Minnetonka. A week before we left, Air Canada sent me a new itinerary that said my flight to Toronto was fine on July 1st but that my connecting flight to O’Hare was cancelled until the next morning July 2nd. I called Air Canada (at this point Rabbi Locketz told me that he would send a boat) and they said that we could not stay over in Toronto because we aren’t Canadian citizens. The agent said, “We have flights to the US the evening of July 1st to San Francisco, LA and LaGuardia, NY. Which would you prefer?” So we flew to NY after all and rented a van to carry all of us. The silver lining was that we stopped in Indiana and stayed in a tent outside my sister Amanda’s house, and we stopped to say hello to my Mom from her driveway in Madison. We arrived on Friday July 3rd just in time for Shabbat and July 4th.
You’ve also had a circuitous and interesting Jewish Journey. Walk us through that.
I was always a seeker of sort and knew that something was out there, greater than all of us and Divine. I remember as a child walking in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and in the whistling pines I talked to God. My father attended a Methodist church and my mother a UCC church, and we were very spiritual but not always religious. In the summers I studied in various theater programs around the US. All of the Jewish students thought I was Jewish, too (my maiden name is Werner)! I studied theater in London the second semester of my sophomore year at the University of Iowa. It was there that I really felt myself understand my deep connection to my own Jewishness. I was sitting in the back of the National Theatre of London watching the play “Ghetto” by Yehoshua Sobol. This is a musical based on true stories about performing artists who performed in the Vilna ghetto in order to stay alive. The singer Chaya sang these amazing songs in Yiddish and English! I was so drawn to them that when I returned to the cornfields of Iowa, I asked my friend Hannah where I could study Judaism. She brought me to the rabbi at the Hillel and the next Spring I officially converted, but I think I have always had a Jewish soul. My mother also converted about 16 years ago. Now I don’t ever remember NOT being Jewish.
Tell us about your theater training and which of the shows you were in were your favorites.
I was always a singer and in 7th grade I had a fabulous teacher, Mrs. Maggie Brown, who taught a class called “Footlights, Flicks and Flashes.” This class introduced me to Theater, Radio and Film, and I LOVED it! My favorite roles in high school and college were Daisy Mae in “Li’l Abner” and Nellie in “South Pacific,” and recently in Jerusalem I played Nettie in “Carousel.” I love musicals, and my favorite songs are “Dear Evan Hanson” and “Come From Away.” I have a BA in Theater with an Acting Emphasis from the University of Iowa; Cantorial Ordination and a Master’s in Sacred Music from Hebrew Union College; and a Master’s in Performance Studies from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. There I studied the development of the prayer leader through the teaching of the embodiment of text. My thesis was “Globalization and the Performance of the Sabbath.” This work became a published paper entitled “(Re)Learning L’Hitpalel: The Performance of Prayer as Spiritual Education.”
How does your theater background influence what we experience at Bet Shalom?
Theater has allowed me to find my voice and my way of teaching. I also studied how one is taught presence through the education of the artist’s gaze. What does this mean? Theater has given me the ability to connect others to text because I myself have first connected with the text spoken or sung. In theater the actor learns to become the text so that the words written on the page become my own words; this is exactly like prayer. These prayers are older than Shakespeare but they become mine through my own personal subtext. When I pray for God’s creation each morning I imagine the birth of my children or the arrival of a day that was spectacular and the text takes on new meaning: I bring it to life. This is exactly what we do when we chant Torah. I teach each student to breathe their life into the text and give it to others as a gift. This, by the way, I took from YoYo Ma, my favorite cellist, who says, “I rehearse a piece of music so that I own it. It is within me and a part of me so that when I perform I can give it away as a gift.” So prayer is a gift and it is from total love.
One of your strengths is getting people to participate in singing. Obviously that’s been difficult with online services. How are you dealing with this?
This is a tough situation for all of us but I think that connection and community are more important than ever before. When I sing “by myself” in my Zoom room for services, I always put on a gallery view so that I can see faces and movements of people singing in their homes. It makes everything so special to hear the b’nai mitzvah family lead us in candle lighting and Kiddush, Rita playing piano during silent prayer, the Rabbis leading us and guiding us at this time, and Steve Barberio giving us all looks of encouragement, all from individual spaces but yet together. I feel a real divine sense of togetherness in this time. It also happens in our Zoom rituals with b’nai mitzvah and their families lately as they take over the sanctuary space and really rise to the occasion. I am a crier, so I have cried at each one of these services because they are just so unique and special. I am overwhelmed by the presence of holiness during these experiences with Bet Shalom families.
With that being said, I do know that when we eventually reunite in person in the sanctuary and in halls and classrooms of learning at Bet Shalom, I will rejoice and it will be glorious!!! I want to hear everyone singing, laughing and learning prayers and Torah and just being together celebrating Jewish time. This day will arrive and we will all be stronger.
How are you running B’nai Mitzvah preparation?
On Zoom; it works very well for now. I had a meeting with Shelly Christensen and Heidi Roston, and we just celebrated together as the “Trio of Torah Trope-sisters”. We are all so lucky that we have the best Torah teachers for our b’nai mitzvah students! Wow! We met and immediately bonded. This alone will strengthen all of our b’nai mitzvah students. I LOVE TEACHING TORAH to all ages but b’nai mitzvah are just so incredibly special. For the last 18 years in Jerusalem I have taught future rabbis, cantors and educators Torah and Haftarah cantillation and how to teach it. It is really my passion and calling. I have also led bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies in Jerusalem at the egalitarian Kotel, even some wonderful Bet Shalom families! These moments have been a sign for me that I am meant to be teaching them and enabling b’nai mitzvah students and families to read these great Jewish moments with pure love and joy.
Favorite non-Jewish music and band?
I love Bruce Springsteen and the E-street Band, Old and Alt Country, Prince and Lady Gaga, to name a few. The last time Ed Sheeran was at the US Bank Stadium I saw him and fell in love. I LOVE jazz as well, old and new jazz, but Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan are some of my favorites. I am obsessed with dance as well and music that moves the body in an artistic way.
Favorite Jewish Food? Israeli Salad and whitefish salad on a salt or everything bagel.