Like many students, Cantor Jennifer Boyle’s college experience was filled with academic growth and self-discovery, but it also led her to an unexpected spiritual and musical awakening.
And, to a remarkable conversion to Judaism from Catholicism.
As the new cantor-educator of Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, Boyle hopes to instill in congregants her love of Judaism and music.
Raised Catholic in York, Penn., Boyle was very involved with the Catholic Church singing in the choir, volunteering, and active in youth groups. However, when she enrolled at Hofstra University, she immersed herself in the Jewish community almost by accident.
“There were plenty of Jewish students, Jewish life and culture happening on campus. At first, I was more involved as a social thing like going to Friday night dinners. After a while, I got involved with studying the Torah and going to religious services. At the same time I was still involved with Catholicism,” Boyle said.
As immersed as she was in both communities, Boyle said there came a point where she had to make a choice between the two religious worlds.
“I was like where do I belong, what do I believe? I thought about it, and I prayed about it, and that’s when I realized that Judaism was really calling to me. I like to think it was always part of my identity, and I discovered it later in life.” she said.
Her family is supportive and understanding, but it was difficult in the beginning.
“I like to tell people it’s been an evolution over the years,” she said. “When I first converted, my family felt hurt and alienated because I was rejecting their faith.
“But over the years, they have become more and more supportive over my decision. They’ll ask me questions about different traditions, and if I’m home for the December holidays, I’ll light the Menorah and make latkes with them.”
By her sophomore year at Hofstra, Boyle decided to study music full time. At that time, she was on the path toward conversion to Judaism as well, and that’s when she considered becoming a cantor.
In the Jewish community, a cantor is an ordained clergy member similar to a rabbi who leads a congregation and officiates lifecycle events.
“What makes a cantor special and separate from that role of the rabbi is really the focus on Jewish music,” Boyle said. “The cantor is a guardian of the tradition of Jewish music, knowing where the music comes from, and knowing the special melodies that are used in the different points of the year.”
Balancing academics and Jewish studies, Boyle worked with a rabbi and completed her conversion before graduating in 2016 with a degree in music and on her way to cantorial school in Boston.
“I realized being a cantor would allow me to combine different passions: teaching, working with people, giving back to the Jewish community, and music. It just seemed like the perfect fit.” Boyle said.
She explained that a cantor is a true innovator of music by bringing songs new to the congregation or writing original pieces.
“A cantor is someone who is keeping their finger on the pulse of what’s going on musically in both the Jewish world and the larger world,” Boyle said.
Excited to be a part of the temple community, Boyle hopes to share her own ideas and to foster her love of Jewish music.
“Temple Beth Tikvah is a very warm, caring, kind community. It’s a very heimish (homey or familiar in Yiddish) community,” Boyle said.
Just prior to joining Temple Beth Tikvah in July, Boyle received her Master’s in Jewish Education and was ordained as a Cantor in June at Hebrew College in Boston. She also served in the Greater Boston area as a teacher, tutor and cantorial soloist.
Married this summer, Boyle enjoys spending time with her husband, Cory Sammartino-Guzzi, hiking, cooking, and creating music together having met in the music department at Hofstra.
Boyle is also excited to serve as head of the synagogue’s weekly religious school bringing her love of teaching and working with children. She hopes that her own powerful path to spiritual discovery serves as inspiration to her students.
“Having them experience these moments of discovery about Judaism and how it’s relative to their lives whether they’re 3 years old lighting the Menorah for the first time, or they’re in ninth grade starting to wrestle with complex topics.” she said.
Like most houses of worship, daily life at Temple Beth Tikvah may look a bit different for now. Looking toward the fall opening of religious school and the Jewish High Holy Days in September — Rosh Hashana begins Sept. 18 — Boyle stresses that flexibility is key. Platforms such as Zoom will most likely play a role in observing these holidays and reaching congregants.
“Being open, creative, and positive helps,” Boyle said. “We have a plan. We’re going to get through this and it’s going to be ok. We might even make some new discoveries along the way.”