By Stacey Dresner
Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray has never had the chance to daven along with the Women of the Wall, the group that fights for their right to pray and sing openly at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But Katchko-Gray, a fourth-generation cantor, has been instrumental in helping Women of the Wall form its own choir.
In January, the Women of the Wall Choir sang and prayed for the first time at the Western Wall on Rosh Chodesh.
For Katchko-Gray, cantor at Congregation Shir Shalom in Ridgefield, this all started with a coffee-stained tallit.
Worn by Anat Hoffman, a founding member and executive director of Women of the Wall, the tallit was stained when a protester threw a cup of coffee at her while she and her group were praying at the Wall.
“I saw a photo of this coffee-stained tallis and I just imagined, as a woman praying in a tallit for many years, what would it be like to have somebody hate you so much that they would throw hot coffee at your back while you are praying?” Katchko-Gray said. “I thought, ‘This is a violent assault while she was praying. Something clicked and I felt energized. I felt I had to do something. It wasn’t enough to just go ‘Ach, that’s terrible.’”
So Katchko-Gray, who makes tallitot using huck, or Swedish embroidery, sent Hoffman a brown, coffee-colored tallit that she had made, along with the message: ‘G-d forbid anybody ever throws coffee at you again, at least the stains won’t show.’ And I wanted her to know that someone was thinking and feeling for her and her situation.”
Katchko-Gray didn’t stop there. She invited Hoffman to speak via Zoom to her congregation’s Sisterhood and to members of the Women Cantors’ Network at their annual conference.
“She told us she had a dream – that she wanted to have a Women of the Wall choir to help combat the hatred, the whistling, the screaming of the ultra-Orthodox,” Katchko-Gray recalled. “She kind of gave me the challenge to help get this choir going.
“She really wanted me to contact Barbra Steisand to get a letter of support,” the cantor said with a laugh. “I tried to contact Barbra Streisand’s agent but I didn’t get anywhere. In the meantime, I thought, ‘What can I do?’”
She took it to the members of the Women Cantors’ Network, and they agreed to support the choir.
“We’ve never donated a large amount of money to anything other than, every other year commissioning a new piece of music from women composers. But we committed $10,000 to help get this choir going,” Katchko-Gray said.
She then identified 10 pieces that the choir and others could “sing along to but that could be made more beautiful with harmonies.”
“They wanted a traditional service. They don’t want new music,” Katchko-Gray explained. “They have Orthodox, Conservative and Reform women davening and they would like to keep it a little more traditional.”
She then gave the songs to her friend, composer, producer, and artist Beth Styles of Stamford.
“She created really wonderful harmonies and arrangements, and then we had to find a conductor – a music director.”
That wasn’t so easy, Katchko-Gray said.
“You’re not just directing a choir, you have to believe in the cause,” she said. “You have to be willing to get up at the crack of dawn and face adverse conditions. You don’t just walk into a synagogue where it is quiet and peaceful. You have to get past security guards, you have to get past protesters, there could be people yelling and shoving. It’s not an easy thing.”
They found the perfect musical director in 34-year-old Ester Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi, a native of Italy who was raised Modern Orthodox and whose father was a cantor, has lived in Israel for 15 years. She directs four other synagogue choirs.
“She’s terrific. She’s been rehearsing with them weekly and they sound great,” said Katchko-Gray. “It’s wonderful to see this group of young women singing together. They look so peaceful and happy when they are singing this music.”
She and her husband Dr. F. Scott Gray have gifted the choir with scarves in the WOW colors – purple, pink and plum.
“They wanted a uniform, or something that would identify them as the choir. I said what about a scarf? Not everybody might want to wear a tallit or kippah.”
“For me personally, the last time I got that worked up and excited about something was when I founded the Womens Cantors’ Network,” Katchko-Gray said.
She founded the network in 1982, a year after she became a cantor and the same year she went to a conference of the Cantor’s Assembly. As the only female cantor at that conference, she says she felt left out and even felt some hostility from some of the male cantors. Today there are 220 members of the Womens Cantors’ Network.
“That’s the kind of energy and excitement that I felt – that we could make a difference and that I could help bring this to fruition, bring it to reality. It made me feel that brash young woman who was making changes.
It really felt good.”