By Stacey Dresner
HARTFORD – She was one of the first female rabbis ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and she was the first Connecticut woman to become a Conservative rabbi.
As spiritual leader, she helped two Hartford area synagogues come together as B’nai Tikvoh Sholom (BTS) in Bloomfield.
And as a liberal voice standing up for human rights, she has been arrested at the Western Wall and protested the presidency of Donald Trump at a “Not the White House Chanukah Party” at Trump Tower.
On May 14, Rabbi Debra Cantor will receive the Jewish Heritage Award at the Charter Oak Cultural Center’s 17th Annual Vision Awards Gala to be held at the Hartford Marriott Downtown at 5:30 p.m.
“I know Donna Berman and I love the work that the Charter Oak Cultural Center does,” Rabbi Cantor said earlier this week. “They focus their work on three areas and those are all areas that are dear to me. One is of course, Jewish heritage, but I am also very interested in the other two areas, which are culture and the arts and social justice. I just love the work that they do in Hartford. I myself am involved in efforts to connect with what’s going on in Hartford and marshaling the power of religious institutions to make life better in Hartford and Greater Hartford, and trying to see ourselves as part of a larger community. So the projects and initiatives that Charter Oak has done over quite a few years are just totally things that I admire and support.”
Along with several other of the evening’s honorees, Rabbi Cantor is described by Charter Oak Cultural Center as a “bold, courageous, creative, brilliant community leader.”
Rabbi Cantor laughed at that description, but when asked she explained her definition of courage.
“I don’t think of myself as courageous, but being courageous doesn’t mean that you aren’t afraid of things, it doesn’t mean that you don’t consider risks,” she said. “But I think what gives people courage – what gives me courage is asking, what are the values that I really cherish? …What are the values that animate my life? What are the things that I hold most dear? And if I can honor those values, then that gives me courage; that gives me the will to persevere, to speak out, to be present. I think that’s really the key, to check in with yourself and ask, ‘is this worth taking a stand?’”
And what does she believe are worth taking a stand?
“Human rights, fighting racism, working toward peace, equality, justice. You know, sometimes those things sound like pie in the sky, but those are the most important things in life – loving people, honoring differences, pursuing real relationships, not just sort of giving lip service to being tolerant.”
Debra Cantor grew up in the small, close-knit Jewish community in Ellington. She was the only Jewish student for most of the time she was in school, but she was raised with a strong love of Judaism.
She earned a BA from Brandeis in Judaic and Near Eastern studies, then went to JTS to study Talmud and rabbinics before the institution ordained women as rabbis.
At one point she left JTS, got married and worked in the Soviet Jewry movement and for Hillel in New York City.
Five years later, when JTS admitted women into its rabbinical school, she went back as part of the first rabbinical school class to include women. She served as rabbi at Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, the first Conservative synagogue in New York to hire a woman rabbi, later returning to Connecticut in 1992 to serve as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Sholom in Newington.
In April 2011, B’nai Shalom merged with Congregation Tikvoh Chadoshoh in Bloomfield to create B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom, where Cantor still serves as rabbi.
Cantor, who will celebrate her 30th year in the rabbinate in June, has an extensive background in Jewish education with particular expertise in adult learning, teacher training, synagogue change, leadership development, and Jewish outreach.
Last spring she founded the Neshama Lifelong Learning Center, a joint adult education venture of BTS and the Mandell Jewish Community Center that covers five areas: Jewish text study, social justice, interfaith learning, meditation and mindfulness, and the arts.
Rabbi Cantor is on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford Jewish Community Relations Council and serves as rabbinic advisor for the Women’s Philanthropy division of the Federation. A member of the Rabbinical Assembly, she is founding chair of that organization’s Task Force on Women, a member of the Ethics Committee, and incoming president of the Connecticut Valley region.
Cantor is married to James Beede and they have two children, Max and Penina.
She is also an accomplished artist who enjoys exploring Torah and Jewish ideas through collage and mixed media art. She is currently working on a picture book about her father’s adventures growing up on that chicken farm in Ellington.
And she is “thrilled” to be receiving the Vision Award.
“I’m very honored to be receiving this – to have been chosen by this institution that I value so much, that I think has played such an important role in our Jewish community and the larger community… and to be honored by Rabbi Berman and the board,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe it when they called me. I was blown away – ‘really, me?’ It was really quite thrilling.”