By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP
DALLAS — If it were any other opportunity that had knocked, Cantor Vicky Glikin might have stayed in the Chicago area, where she has spent most of her life since arriving in the United States at age 13.
“I was very happy where I was and it was difficult to leave because I loved the people and felt very connected to them,” she said. “Chicago was home.”
But she knew serving as the senior cantor at Temple Emanu-El — a position recently held by her mentor, Richard Cohn — was something she had to seriously consider.
“If I’m going to put my heart into it, I want it to be the right place,” Glikin said. “I had heard amazing things about their congregation, which has a national reputation as a leader in terms of creativity and types of clergy.”
After visiting Dallas — and falling in love with it — she and husband Vlad Leybovich took the plunge.
“We saw this is a place where we could enjoy living,” she said, citing the foodie scene, theater, museums, cosmopolitan nature, friendly people and weather.
She sees her vision for Temple Emanu-El fitting in well with the “transformative work” being carried out by the clergy and congregation.
“Something that struck me from the beginning is the level of intentionality and thoughtfulness at every level,” Glikin said. “Despite the huge membership, I’m struck by the desire to make a difference in each member’s life.”
To do that, she has to embrace a number of different roles.
“These days, a successful cantor has to do it all,” Glikin said. “The sound people are looking for on the High Holidays; sit on the floor with the 3-year-olds and sing The Itsy Bitsy Spider in Hebrew; song lead with my guitar — moments of grandeur and those of real intimacy.”
She cites Cohn as her model of “full clergy.”
“The cantor he modeled not only led music but officiated lifecycle events, taught, provided pastoral care.”
Glikin, who took over the position at the beginning of July, was ordained in 2012.
Her ordination was the culmination of many years of cantorial soloist work, teaching classes, and going through the rigorous program at Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.
Nor was it her first career. Glikin was an equity analyst while she continued to delve deeper into her Judaism.
“The journey starts in Ukraine, a musical kid with a strong Jewish identity,” she said.
Being Jewish in Ukraine was more cultural than religious, so her first real exposure to sacred Jewish music came at age 11. She was immediately hooked.
Once stateside, she joined the choir at B’nai Emunah, a conservative synagogue. Then she was a soloist at Congregation Beth Am and for a Russian-speaking congregation, where she also taught in the religious school.
The next big step was in 2004, when she was a soloist at North Shore Congregation Israel. Cantor Cohn — who later came to Emanu-El and is now the director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music — served as a mentor, and created a year-round position for her. Glikin led family services and educational programs.
“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “Spiritually, I felt connected to Torah, and that it enriches my life.”
Despite her strong Jewish identity, she had once thought of the Torah as “archaic.”
One formative moment in connecting with the words at the heart of the tradition was a Birthright trip she went on with her fiancé, now her husband.
“That was a tremendously important step, the first time I really studied Torah,” Glikin said.
The story of Abraham, who also uprooted his life and found new meaning, especially moved her.
“I realized, it’s not archaic, it’s amazing,” she said.
She also credits an Orthodox group, the Chicago Torah Network. Purim was approaching and she wanted to learn more. The outreach group of rabbis welcomed the couple for Shabbos, and they studied each week.
Being at North Shore gave her a chance to take on more and more challenges, moving her ever closer to the cantorate.
“They loved what I had done and I absolutely loved what I was doing,” Glikin said.
When people told her how much they were inspired by her teaching of Avinu Malkeinu to the kids, the decision was made.
“At that point, I turned to my husband and said, ‘I want to become a cantor.’”
She spent three years at North Shore, two with Cantor Cohn and one with Cantor David Goldstein, like Cohn, a former president of the American Conference of Cantors.
During that time she took classes and studied the liturgy, but knew it would take more.
“I realized that to be the cantor I wanted to be, I needed to go to HUC,” she said.
That would not be easy.
“Even though I was a tremendously knowledgeable soloist, when I started HUC I discovered I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. Judaism is tremendously complex, not just black and white. We are entirely in that gray.”
In addition to the tough coursework, there were family considerations. The first year was in Israel, and her husband and children would have to make the trip as well.
“I had two kids. My daughter turned one a week after we got to Israel and two weeks later my son turned three,” Glikin said.
Once back in the states, she spent as much time as she could in her student pulpit, Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, and was in the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program, which helped develop her leadership skills.
She strived “to be a really full presence” at Temple Sholom, using it as a way to prepare for a full-time pulpit.
The breadth of her experiences helped her immensely once classes were complete. Between the student pulpit, the migrant experience, her work in the field as a soloist and teacher, and her previous career in finance, she came out of school ready for the serious responsibilities the position entails.
‘Low resistance to change’
“It gave me a sense of maturity and responsibility — not that I think it is unprecedented — but I think these experiences helped shape me,” Glikin said.
She spent the next four years at Congregation Solel in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. It was a great opportunity to develop her style and try new things.
“It is a pretty unique place in that it is a congregation of low resistance to change,” she said. “It’s a place where I was able to bring all my talents to the table, and to create programming and vision in a full way and see my ideas come to fruition in a full way.”
Glikin said she’s been very impressed with how the clergy, lay leaders and members of Temple Emanu-El approach the music program and the foundation laid by previous cantors.
One moment she will cherish came from hearing the choir sing her arrangement of Yihyu L’ratzon/Oseh Shalom.
“To hear that setting of the prayer I composed sung by the glorious Temple Emanu-El choir was tremendously moving,” Glikin said.
She has also been impressed by the commitment made to transform the physical space, such as planning and raising funds for the new chapel.
“It speaks volumes about the congregation’s ability to envision something and bring it to life,” she said.
The first year for a cantor in a new congregation always has one especially big hurdle — the first high holiday services. Another big moment will be her installation Nov. 18.
Although Glikin said those will really help her feel she has settled in, learning on the job never stops — and neither will the programming.
“We have a tremendously full musical calendar for the year,” she said. “The High Holidays are just a beginning.”