By Stacey Dresner
GREENWICH – As cantor and rabbi of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, Vicki Axe has integrated music into all facets of the synagogue – which seems apt, given that “Shir Ami” is Hebrew for “Song of Our People.”
But at the end of this year’s High Holidays, Rabbi Axe will bow out of her role as spiritual leader of the Reform congregation so that she may take care of what she describes as her husband’s “health care needs.”
“This was a difficult decision,” said Rabbi Axe, “but I know that it is right for me and my family and for Shir Ami. The transition for all of us will be transformational as we forge our respective futures.”
“While Rabbi Axe will no longer serve as our rabbi, she will always be part of our congregational family as she begins this new chapter in her life,” said Dahni Nisinzweig, the congregation’s co-president and one of its founders.
According to both Nisinzweig and Joel Collamer, treasurer and another founding member, the plan is to keep Shir Ami going.
“We plan to honor the legacy that Rabbi Axe has generated and fostered, to continue her passion for Jewish life and learning, for music as a cultural heritage, social justice as a mandate, and caring for one another as a way of life,” Collamer said.
Shir Ami members were notified of Axe’s desire to step down in a letter from Shir Ami’s Board.
In a letter to congregants, the Board wrote an ‘emergency meeting’ of the current board and past presidents had been held to discuss options, and gather opinions and recommendations for how the Board should respond, and what that means for Shir Ami’s future.”
Last week, Nisinzweig told the Ledger that Axe will continue in her role as cantor and rabbi at Shir Ami until Simchat Torah, and then will then be placed on a sabbatical leave – paid for with money from the shul’s reserve fund – until the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2019. She will then retire and become Shir Ami’s rabbi emerita.
Rabbi Axe explained that she will continue to be a presence in the lives of her longtime congregants.
“I plan to stay in the area for the foreseeable future,” she said. “I hope to continue with community activities and be available to Shir Ami for advice and events, and to members for life-cycle events and pastoral counseling.”
Shir Ami was founded in 2003 by several families who previously had been members of Greenwich Reform Synagogue (GRS). Axe, who had served as cantor at GRS, came on board at Shir Ami as founding spiritual leader and educational director.
Over the course of the past 15 years, the congregation has grown from approximately 10 families to what Nisinzweig estimates to be approximately 40 families.
Owing to Axe’s departure, the Shir Ami Board has decided to suspend annual membership dues for 2018/2019. Current members may also attend upcoming Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at no charge. As in past years, non-members will be asked for a minimum donation to offset costs.
For now, the Board is seeking feedback from its members as to how they see the future of the congregation.
“There is a strong desire to explore opportunities for Shir Ami to continue beyond the current 2018/19 fiscal year and to build upon and continue the spiritual, educational, and musical legacy that’s been established by Rabbi Axe,” the Board wrote in its letter to members.
A love of music
After receiving her Bachelor of Music Education from Temple University, her Master’s in Music Education from Ohio State University and a degree in Sacred Music and ordination as cantor from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, Axe served for the following 20 years as cantor in several synagogues in Connecticut, New York and Ohio.
In 2008, five years after she began leading Shir Ami, she was awarded a Doctor of Music, honorous causa from HUC-JIR. That same year, she was ordained a rabbi by the Rabbinical Academy of America. In 2016, she received her Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care and Counseling from HUC-JIR.
During her tenure at Shir Ami, Axe has put to good use her musical talent, and her love of pastoral counseling, as well as her desire to reach out to all corners of the Jewish community.
“Rabbi Axe inspired us to be welcoming to everyone who wants to be part of a Jewish community – interfaith, LGBTQ+ singles, young families, seniors, boomers – everyone,” said Past President Nancy Collamer.
Along with her roles as rabbi and cantor, Axe also served as Shir Ami’s educational director.
“Her leadership as director and teacher of our Religious School students is legendary,” said Linda Gratt, education chair and teacher. “The hundreds of students she has taught and prepared for bar/bat mitzvah carry her teachings into their adult lives and many have sought her out to officiate at their weddings years after they left the community.”
Rabbi Axe will lead Shir Ami’s High Holiday services at Round Hill Community Church in Greenwich, where the congregation regularly holds services. Her final service as rabbi/cantor of Shir Ami will be on Friday, Sept. 28 for Simchat Torah Shabbat Services, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Her 15 years at Shir Ami and 35 years as rabbi, cantor and educator will also be celebrated that evening.
“Over the past 15 years Shir Ami has been a tight-knit group of families who enjoy praying, singing and celebrating together and Rabbi Axe has been at the core of that,” Nisinzweig said. “Her leadership, inspiration and multi talents have made Shir Ami a warm, welcoming and enjoyable place to be for all of us.”
For information regarding Rabbi Axe’s farewell service on Friday, Sept. 28, call (203) 274-5376 or visit www.congregationshirami.org.
CAP: Rabbi Vicki Axe after receiving her rabbinical ordination.