The Spiritual Quest of a “Jewish Soul”

Cantor Caitlin Bromberg has had an interesting journey.

Not only did the new chazzan at Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood move here in July from Albuquerque, New Mexico, but the former Caitlin O’Sullivan -whose conversion service was featured in a 1981 Moment magazine article on Jews by choice – has moved closer to what she called her “destiny,” combining a love of Judaism with a passion for music.

“I was one of the first to do a public conversion ceremony in Manhattan,” she said, explaining that the service reflected the view of the late Rabbi Alexander Schindler, then leader of the Reform movement, that conversions should be celebrated like other major life-cycle events.

“I sang during the service,” she said, and shortly afterwards she received an invitation to officiate at High Holiday services at a small Reform congregation. “Even then I was thinking about [the cantorate],” she said.

Raised in San Diego, Calif., Bromberg received her ordination from the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of The Jewish Theological Seminary in 2000 and chose to begin her new professional life in the southwest.

After four years at a congregation in El Paso, Texas, she moved to Albuquerque’s B’nai Israel, the only Conservative congregation in New Mexico, which she served for an additional four years. Each city has a Jewish population of about 5,000, but, she pointed out, “it is difficult to determine the exact number of Jews in southwestern cities because of their high level of assimilation and lack of affiliation.”

While in El Paso, Bromberg worked with members of the converso community, helping to staff an outreach program created by Conservative Rabbi Stephen Leon (formerly of the Elmwood Park Jewish Center), who, she said, has made it his mission “to bring crypto-Jews back to Judaism.”

The term “crypto-Jews” refers to those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who ostensibly converted to Catholicism at about the time of the Spanish Edict of Expulsion in 1492, but secretly maintained their religious traditions.

At the time she left the city for her new pulpit, Leon had already established contact with dozens of converso families. His congregation was well-placed, Bromberg said, to operate the program, since it contains a sizable segment of Mexican Jews, with whom the conversos feel comfortable.

“It was a fascinating part of my years in El Paso,” she said, noting that there are more declared crypto-Jews in El Paso than in Albuquerque, where they are “still hidden, not ready to come forward.”

She cited the work of historian Dr. Stanley Hordes, of the University of New Mexico, who holds that there were several crypto-Jews – fleeing inquisitorial persecution in Spain, Portugal, and Mexico -among the early European settlers of New Mexico in the 16th and 17th centuries. While many of their descendants have lost all knowledge of their Jewish past, others either are aware of their heritage or still practice vestigial Jewish customs, such as lighting candles on Friday night, refraining from eating pork, etc., without knowing why.

“Some of the old families have been there for more than 500 years,” she said. “Their names are different, and while they do not understand Ladino, they speak an older dialect of Spanish, not Mexican Spanish.”

Bromberg said she made some personal connections with members of the converso community, developing additional pieces of the outreach project and participating in monthly trilingual services conducted in Hebrew, English, and Spanish. In addition, she worked with a number of people following their conversion to Judaism.

“I knew enough Spanish to connect with them,” she said, pointing out that her fluency in reading and singing in Spanish “added something to the monthly services.”

On July 7, Bromberg led her first Shabbat service as cantor of Temple Israel, a congregation she has come to know well since the beginning of the interview process.

“By the time I came, I knew a lot of people,” she said, noting that this has helped her integrate very quickly into the life of the congregation.

She added that while B’nai Israel in Albuquerque is not much different in size from Temple Israel, “the character of the congregations is quite different.”

“Temple Israel [which has about 300 families] feels like 500 families, like a bigger community,” she said.

“While synagogue ritual is pretty much the same, [out west] there is less Judaism outside the synagogue.” Here, she said, “there is an intact Jewish culture. People will approach you at services and ask if you have a place to go for meals. There’s a sense of providing hospitality in a hands-on way – not just expressing the concept.”

“This is what I was looking for,” she added, noting that she is also pleased to be closer to “one of the greatest music centers in the western world. There are even a lot of talented musicians right in the congregation. I want to cultivate a congregational culture incorporating that talent,” she said.

Bromberg said she became interested in Judaism at age 12 after her family began to pull away from the Catholic Church. She began by reading one Jewish book after another.

“I was devastated by the stories of the Holocaust, inspired by the narrative of the founding of the State of Israel, and intrigued by the references to Jewish thought and belief,” she said.

When she did attend church, she said, “I would only say the prayers that acknowledged God alone and was silent during the other liturgy. My family was embarrassed by that, but treated it as a somewhat intellectual form of teenage rebellion.”

Moving to New York after college, with a degree in theater, she continued to explore her interest in Judaism, ultimately making the decision to convert. While she was then dating a Jewish man, she said, “I wanted to make my decision about Judaism independently of the pressure of an impending wedding, because if I converted I wanted it to be a life decision that would work for me regardless of my marital status.”

“My family was not surprised, and both my parents traveled to New York from California to attend the Saturday morning service at which I formally accepted Judaism,” said Bromberg who is now divorced; her 21-year-old son, Rafi, is attending college in Albuquerque, studying acting and singing.

Five years after her conversion, growing increasingly interested “in what traditional forms of Judaism had to offer,” Bromberg completed an Orthodox conversion at the Young Israel of Boro Park, living as an Orthodox Jew for several years. Subsequently, she found herself “moving toward the middle road” in Judaism, which culminated in her decision to become a Conservative cantor.

Bromberg converted at age 26, started cantorial school at 38, and became a cantor at 45. She said that during the course of her studies, she encountered rabbinic texts about Jewish souls lost to the Jewish people and inhabiting the bodies of non-Jews.

“For such people, conversion is a process of discovering their true nature, rather than changing. I had always felt that way,” she said.

While Temple Israel has yet to find a new rabbi – Rabbi Gil Steinlauf recently left the congregation to take a pulpit in Washington, D.C., and an interim rabbi will serve the congregation during its rabbinic search – Bromberg pointed out that the congregation contains “many literate daveners and well-educated Torah readers” who can help out – one of the things that first attracted her to the job.

“I’d like to help the congregation explore with the interim rabbi who they are as a congregation so that the rabbi ultimately chosen will really reflect the community,” she said. “It’s a great community to serve. I want to help the synagogue grow, not just in numbers but in terms of influence and importance to the community.”