A look at the ordination journey of Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne

Rabbi Cantor Russ Jayne (Photo Supplied).

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Calgary Beth Tzedec Congregation has a newly minted Rabbi, though his friendly face, remarkable voice and inspiring teaching are qualities with which the congregation and community are already well accustomed.

On December 19, 2021 Cantor Russell Jayne achieved a long-held aspiration when he received his smicha – rabbinical ordination – from the Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary (PRS) after two years of intensive study in an online program geared toward individuals already serving as Jewish professionals.

After more than seven years as Chazzan at Beth Tzedec, Rabbi Cantor Jayne will now add the role of Congregational Rabbi to his other synagogue duties, after the synagogue board of directors voted unanimously to enter negotiations toward a new employment agreement.

Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne (R) is ordained by Rabbi Sandy Zisser, cofounder of the Pluralistic Rabbinical Assembly. (Photo supplied.)

One of six rabbis that formed the first-ever PRS cohort, Rabbi Cantor Jayne – previously ordained as a Cantor after five years of study at the Jewish Theological Seminary and its H. L. Miller Cantorial School – is the sole member of the PRS class of 2021 that will serve as a pulpit Rabbi. His classmates included a chaplain from Atlanta, a professional in the Jewish non-profit world from San Francisco, a psychologist from Southern California and a Jewish educator from San Francisco who specializes in helping Jewish couples navigate divorce. As the title of their rabbinical school would suggest, the group is diverse when it comes to their vocations, geographical locations, ages, backgrounds and personal Jewish practices.

Equally diverse was the group of scholars who taught them, including rabbis trained in Conservative and Reform seminaries and a Chassidic rabbi from Brooklyn who taught them about Chassidism as an insider and personally attended their smicha ceremony at the Sleepy Hollow Inn in Tarrytown, New York.

The soporific-sounding location belies the flurry of activity in a program that condensed an astonishing breadth of subject matter and skill-building into two years.

“The Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary provided an important pathway for me, and others like me who were already serving communities and did not have the luxury of packing up and attending rabbinical seminaries for four or five years of in-person learning,” Rabbi Cantor Jayne told AJNews.

“Before pursuing this program, I did look at what other accredited, established seminaries offered in terms of pursuing smicha, and none of the programs were compatible with the circumstances of individuals already serving the community who wished to continue to work while studying toward ordination.”

At present, within the Conservative movement, there are no completely online programs offering rabbinical studies leading to ordination. One option that Rabbi Cantor Jayne found within the Reconstructionist movement was geared only to Eastern Time making it impossible for him to juggle his responsibilities at Beth Tzedec with his studies.

“The Pluralistic Rabbinical Assembly has built a solid program that addresses the need; I believe that well-established Jewish institutions are sure to follow,” added Rabbi Cantor Jayne.

Online interdenominational rabbinical study programs have proliferated in recent years, posing a challenge for previously existing Jewish institutions. It is Rabbi Cantor Jayne’s hope that cornerstone institutions within the Conservative movement – like the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles – will consider providing online options for Jewish professionals who aspire to the Rabbinate.

“We’ve always been evolving,” said Rabbi Cantor Jayne, adding that the ability to adapt to changing times and circumstances is what keeps Judaism strong in general.

In addition to core curricula emphasizing sacred texts, PRS students choose some 18 to 20 classes from a plethora of electives and are also required to participate in six innovation units that emphasize entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial skills including how to develop business plans, build successful surveys, market synagogue programs and conduct fundraising campaigns.

“I got to hear a lot about different entrepreneurs, not just in the Jewish world, but in the religious world in general,” said Rabbi Jayne who added that he was inspired by the very innovative programming at the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington DC and the work of Pastor Casper ter Kuile, the Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, who encourages his flock to read non-religious texts using the same inquiry tools typically brought to the reading of sacred texts in order to “really tease something out of it.”

“I am now excited by the idea of helping others to glean inspiration not only from our holy texts, but also from every day reading,” said Rabbi Cantor Jayne, who adds that he is impressed at how the PRS program combines the study of ancient texts with cutting edge modern technology, training future clergy to incorporate the use of tools like social media to make the study and observance of Judaism more widely accessible beyond Synagogue doors.

The nexus of old and new has always fascinated Rabbi Cantor Jayne, who was delighted to engage in a class taught in Hebrew that explored Israeli popular music through the analysis of its religious symbolism.

“We learned to delve deeply to find the coded religious references that are there. It was a fascinating class because so much of the inspiration for Israeli popular music is rooted in our scriptural tradition.”

Rabbi Cantor Jayne looks forward to bringing the best of what he has learned to Beth Tzedec congregants and the community at large. A course he plans to offer this spring will give participants a fascinating overview of false messiahs throughout Jewish history. It is a fitting topic at a time when more and more people within and beyond the Jewish community are drawn to extremes and seek comfort in the too-easy answers willingly provided by demagogues.

In addition to enjoying the support of his teachers and classmates at PRS, Rabbi Cantor Jayne had the enthusiastic backing of the Beth Tzedec board of directors.

“Beth Tzedec has a long-standing record of supporting the continuing education of our clergy. We were really investing in our own future when we supported Cantor Jayne’s rabbinical studies,” said David Inhaber, the immediate past president and current interim CEO at Beth Tzedec.

At the time that Cantor Russ – as he was then known – was first hired, some were taken aback that Beth Tzedec had hired a convert as Cantor. Others were opposed to the hiring of an openly gay clergy member.

“Those of us who interviewed and hired Cantor Jayne, felt strongly that he would gain the respect of congregants when they saw how committed he is to Conservative Judaism and how inspiring his personal journey has been,” said Lorne Pearl, who is currently serving a second non-consecutive term as congregational president.

“Rabbi Russ has broken down so many barriers just by being who he is. He takes joy in Judaism and has an incredible work ethic,” added Pearl. “Congregants love the way he officiates lifecycle events and take comfort from his supportive presence during times of challenge and loss.”

Behind most successful men are encouraging and nurturing spouses, and that has certainly been the case for Rabbi Cantor Jayne who describes his husband – Russell Janiger – as “immensely supportive.”

“He knew that this meant a lot to me, that smicha was something I had wanted to pursue for years,” said Rabbi Cantor Jayne who quipped that Janiger will henceforth be known to the community as “the Rebbitzer,” a riff on rebbetzin, the traditional honorific for wives of Rabbis.

Janiger has himself served Beth Tzedec and the greater community as an avid volunteer. A much-loved ESL teacher, he has delighted in teaching immigrants in programs provided by Jewish Family Service Calgary and the Immigrant Education Society. Janiger also volunteers in JFSC’s Memory Care and Friendly Visitor programs.

With his husband and community behind him, Rabbi Cantor Jayne looks forward to many more happy and productive years at Beth Tzedec. While there are no immediate plans to hire additional full-time clergy, Rabbi Jayne has three part-time colleagues. Chazzan Sheini Elliott Steinberg leads some Shabbat and Holiday services; Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides assists on the youth education front; and Jonah Potasznik continues to serve as the synagogue’s engagement director.

A former altar boy who embraced Judaism as an adult, Rabbi Cantor Jayne continues his fascinating spiritual journey, breaking barriers and making Conservative Judaism – to which he is passionately devoted – accessible and appealing to Jews by choice while helping those raised as Jews to look at their heritage with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation.

Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.

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