Esther Kang

Redondo Beach female cantor pairs with Matisyahu to challenge traditions of orthodox synagogue music

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It was no easy task tracking down a superstar, but for Cantor Jessica Hutchings, the pieces seem to have fallen in the right places.

Jessica Hutchings is the cantor at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach. Courtesy of Jessica Hutchings

Jessica Hutchings is the cantor at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach. Courtesy of Jessica Hutchings

Last April, Hutchings, the cantorial soloist of Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, saw the renowned Jewish reggae-hip hop-beatbox artist Matisyahu at a MacMall in Torrance as part of an anti-bullying campaign. As she listened to his lyrics, filled with references to the Torah and his devotion to God, something clicked in her: He was the living embodiment of the “happy medium,” the graceful balance of keeping the message sacred while imbuing it with widely-appealed contemporary styles.

A cantor leads the congregation in prayer, often in song, and serves in the clergy alongside the rabbi. Traditionally a role held by men, female cantors emerged in reform synagogues, like Temple Menorah, just some 40 years ago.

“He’s done something extraordinary, which is to bridge secular and sacred music, without even realizing it in a lot of ways,” she said. “I envisioned sharing the stage with Matisyahu for my graduate recital and collaborating our musical visions.”

The two haven’t met yet, but this Sunday they will join together on the Temple Menorah pulpit for a duet of Matisyahu’s 2009 hit single, “One Day,” as arranged by Hutchings. It will cap off her thesis recital, an hour-long series of performances with the temple’s youth choir showcasing her contemporary interpretations of sacred songs and prayers. After a break, an acoustic concert by Matisyahu will follow.

“It feels surreal that it’s all happening,” Hutchings said.

Matisyahu. Courtesy of Temple Menorah

Matisyahu. Courtesy of Temple Menorah

Matisyahu is currently on a national tour for his fifth studio album “Akeda,” which comes out June 3. It’s his second major release since his transformation in 2011 when he shaved off his signature Hasidic beard and with it, his label as the rarified Orthodox Jew reggae superstar. “Sorry folks all you get is me … no alias,” he tweeted to fans. It was a mark of rebirth for the 34-year-old artist, who today continues to celebrate and honor his Jewish roots in his music.

“I began to realize that there were a lot of things within that lifestyle that were actually holding me back,” he told CNN in 2012, sharing why he left the orthodox ideology. “[They] were sort of weighing heavy down on me and keeping me from tasting a certain freedom of expression.”

When he shares the stage with Hutchings this Sunday, it will mark the first time he performs with a female cantor. In an email, he told her that while it could have posed a conflict for him years ago due to orthodox rules regarding the female voice, the question of her gender wasn’t even on his radar this time around.

“Music is Music,” he wrote. “It goes above and beyond the limitations of gender, race, religion, or culture. I base my judgments on the significance of a performance from the inside out not outside in.”

Along those same lines, Hutchings would say that prayer is prayer — that’s the basis of her master’s thesis, titled “Who Needs Synagogue Music Anyway?!” which explores the evolution of music in worship. Orthodox Judaism stipulates that the female voice is not for public consumption because it is considered immodest, and as such does not support female cantors; they’ve been around for fewer than 40 years in other sectors. Hutchings believes that while synagogue music should be preserved as it continues to carry deep significance, the synagogue should also embrace songs of prayer within an updated framework.

“A lot of times people feel disconnected or too tied to the secular world, so they have a hard time engaging with the Jewish community and connecting with the text,” she said. “I’ve always seen it as a good thing that we’re finally evolving as a community and embracing prayer in all different forms,” she said.

Hutchings discovered her musical inclination early on as a kid whose tastes ranged from broadway to hip hop. She was also a fan of Debbie Friedman, an Orthodox Jew folk musician she considers to be a pioneer. Growing up in a reformed Jewish community in Las Vegas, music was what drew her into the synagogue. “It’s what connected me to my faith,” she said. “I’ve always leaned on that to be closer to prayer.”

As she studied opera at Cal State University Long Beach, her conviction to pursue a cantorate grew. She got her footing at Congregation Tikvat Jacob, a synagogue in Manhattan Beach, where she served as youth director.

“It was more than just singing,” she said. “It was a sense of not just being a leader but a spiritual shoulder to lean on. I realized my calling was not just my voice, which I’ve been gifted with, but that I needed to do something for my community.”

This Memorial Day, she will finish her five-year cantorial program and earn her master’s in Jewish sacred music from the Academy for Jewish Religion. Her recital performance with Matisyahu is part of the graduation requirement.

The event on Sunday will honor yet another conclusion: After four years at Temple Menorah as its beloved cantor, she is finishing her tenure this June. She’ll be heading back to her hometown of Las Vegas to serve Congregation Ner Tamid, the largest reform synagogue in Southern Nevada, as its head cantor.

Farewells aside, she hopes to draw interest far beyond the Jewish community. The event, a tradition she hopes her cantorial successor continues next year, will celebrate music not just as a form of prayer but a common language that unites.

“This is the generation we live in, yet we love our heritage, our peoplehood,” she said. “There really isn’t anything like this in the South Bay.”