“I wasn’t born in Texas, but got here as fast as I could” by Scott B. Cantor

“I wasn’t born in Texas, but got here as fast as I could” by Scott B. Cantor

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

Scott B. Cantor
Yom Kippur Symposium
October 2019

In Boston — where my family lived before moving to Texas — at the end of Storrow Drive, there is a large sign in front of an apartment complex: “If you lived here, you’d be home now.” We live just a few blocks from Congregation Beth Israel – yet for many years, we belonged to another large Reform congregation – and so I would say, “If we belonged to Beth Israel, we’d be praying by now.” Seven years ago, my wife Lisa and I made the complicated decision to move to Beth Israel – but it made sense, and it makes even more sense today. I’ll explain – but in order to explain that decision, I have to give you some background on “How Judaism Has Shaped My Life”.

I grew up in Baldwin, New York – a small town on the South Shore of Long Island. Jewishly, I grew up in a “bubble”. Almost all of my elementary school classmates — and one-half of my middle school classmates — were Jewish – and until high school, all of my friends were Jewish. I grew up in a typical Reform Jewish home – my parents belonged to a small Reform synagogue of 300 families. Dad became very active in the congregation – he ran the Bazaar fundraiser and became Men’s Club President, and eventually was “promoted” to Vice President – he was successful at getting congregants to increase their temple dues! I became a Bar Mitzvah and was Confirmed. But 10th grade was the final class in that synagogue’s religious school – there was no program after Confirmation.

At the end of my 11th grade, my parents made a big decision and moved our family to Long Island’s North Shore. This move had an incredible impact on me and my Judaism. Our new synagogue offered a way to meet people quickly — I joined the dynamic youth group and the post-Confirmation class where the Senior Rabbi led a seminar entitled “Sex and Judaism” – this synagogue knew how to “market” itself to teenagers! At Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, I was exposed to creative services and the melodies of NFTY composers. In fact, we youth groupers were spoiled – Jeff Klepper, composer of Shalom Rav and many other familiar melodies we sing on Shabbat, was the songleader on our winter break retreat.

Towards the end of senior year, the Assistant Rabbi said URJ Camp Coleman in Georgia was “looking for new blood”. I applied to be a counselor and got the job. But — it was a culture shock. At this camp – and maybe this is like Greene Family Camp today – people would walk from place to place with their arms around each other. In New York, people barely spoke to one another on the street – and we certainly didn’t touch them! It was a strange summer – as much as I loved the camp, and what the leadership was trying to do by living and being Jewish 24/7, for me, it was a very isolating summer as I hadn’t “grown up” with my fellow counselors through youth group and summer camp.

Being Jewish at Yale took some adjustment and modification, too. When I arrived on campus, I immediately sought out Hillel. But I was frustrated to find there was no Reform group. However, I met this incredibly smart and sophisticated senior who came from Texas, with a strong Reform background, and a passion for getting things done for the Yale Jewish Community. Lisa Stone and I met during that first week at Yale at the Hillel Picnic. Towards the end of freshman year, after many late, intense, multi-hour conversations, we became a couple – and married 5 years later – about 20 minutes from the Yale campus.

Lisa created — and I helped to further develop — a group called the “Creative Reform Shabbaton”, also called the “Yale Chavurah”. This was a way to express our spirituality, make connections, and build a community. We created our own Friday night services – using the basic prayers as a template, we added creative readings and new melodies. It was a success. We started with 8 people meeting once each semester during my freshman year. This became 15 people meeting every other week my sophomore year – and by graduation, 40 people meeting every week.

Lisa and I have been married for 36 years now – that’s “double chai”. We have 3 adult children – Benjamin, Joshua, and Miriam – and we raised them as passionate and committed Reform Jews.

  • For 20 years, Lisa was the Principal of Congregation Emanu El’s Upper School. And so there was absolutely no choice about our children’s attendance at religious school! Our kids went through the key lifecycle events of Consecration, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, and Graduation – and Joshua married his bride Sarah under the chuppah last year.
  • When our kids were growing up, Friday night Shabbat dinner was at OUR house. If they wished to go out later with their friends, that was their choice. But typically, they were happy to remain home for a family evening.
  • Living by example, we instilled in them Jewish values: the importance of education, working hard, tzedakah, and tikkun olam – the need to repair the world.
    And what do I do? I’m a decision scientist – an applied mathematician. Almost 30 years ago, I earned a doctorate in Decision Sciences – the science of decision making. I think about decisions in a methodological, quantitative way. I’m a professor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center – where I research problems in medical decision making.

But MD Anderson is my second employer in Texas. On the job market in the spring of 1991 – the only advertised job in the country for my degree was at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. As a New Yorker and then New Englander, I wasn’t afraid of Texas — after all, Lisa had grown up at Congregation Emanu El in Houston – although for the record, her mother was part of the Congregation Beth Israel Confirmation Class of 1943 (and her photograph is on the wall in these halls!) I had been going to rodeos and eating Tex-Med during my annual visits to Lisa’s family in Dallas. When my first interviewer (inappropriately) asked me if I was married, I bragged about my wife who grew up in Texas. I was offered the opportunity. I was thrilled to begin my academic career at the oldest medical school in Texas!

In 1994, we moved to Meyerland – a move prompted by our Jewish values. The public school system wasn’t working out for us in Clear Lake, and all the private school were church-based — and that’s the same time when I joined MD Anderson.

So even though we lived in Meyerland, we still drove the 18 minutes to Emanu El. At Emanu El, Lisa was a teacher and Principal of the High School program there, and helped restart and maintain the Scouting program. And I was active in the Religious School PTA, led daily minyan, and became a board member. Our community and our history were there.

So how did we come over to Congregation Beth Israel?

To answer that, I have to go back to our earlier days in Houston. After one of the Yom Limmud programs in about 1995, I heard at-the-time Assistant Rabbi David Lyon speak. Later, I literally bumped into him when he was making his “bikur holim” rounds to “visit the sick” – how fortunate I was grabbing a sandwich at Methodist Hospital that day – and we agreed to meet for lunch at a later date – and we’ve been friends ever since. (Another fun digression, when Rabbi Lyon moved to East Lansing, Michigan, that was my brother Eric’s congregation. When he later moved to Dallas, that was my in-laws’ congregation. So we stayed in touch throughout his rabbinic career – and we were thrilled when he returned to Houston 15 years ago.)

Fast forward to 2010 or 2011. I was asked to serve on the Emanu El Vision Committee – to help identify what we as a congregation were looking for regarding a future vision for the synagogue and what characteristics would be ideal for a new Senior Rabbi. Plus, after leading the Membership Committee, my new role was to chair the Retention Subcommittee. How to keep members interested in staying connected?

But then the unthinkable happened. Emanu El elected a new Senior Rabbi – and there were severe challenges with the new leader and the Administration of the congregation that led to very emotionally painful consequences for us. How was I to chair the congregation’s Retention Committee, when I was no longer enthusiastic about the congregation?

And at the same time, we had heard about the hiring of a new cantor at Beth Israel. Lisa and I went to a Friday night service – and coincidentally, it was the installation service. Literally, there were chills going up and down my spine, and the hairs on my arm were standing up – I exclaimed to Lisa, “This is what we’ve been missing at Emanu El! This is how worship should be!” We decided to formally join Beth Israel the following year.

I should add – and this is important – that my friend — and our Rabbi — David Lyon — never pressured me to change affiliations. But he was there to support me during this journey. Yes, it was tough “leaving” friends and people we had worked with for years on volunteer projects. I remember crying during services at Beth Israel at one point – and David Scott gently checking on me after services to be sure that I was okay. And I was. It was safe to let my guard down here. This place was a sanctuary.

I wanted to be connected to Beth Israel and its congregants as quickly as possible. I wanted to become part of the community. Lisa and I went through the new members’ orientation program – learning about the history of this special place – and met several active members who always enthusiastically greeted us when we saw them. As a lover of karaoke, I joined the new volunteer choir and made connections there. And given my strong belief that every Jew should belong to a synagogue, I took on Executive Director Kathy Knott’s challenge to lead the Membership Committee – to get people thinking about the strengths and opportunities of synagogue membership.
A few years later – in August 2017 — the word “sanctuary” took on that other meaning — in a big way – just after Hurricane Harvey did its damage. Yes, we flooded – for the first time ever. It was “only“ 8 inches of water – but for those of you who know about flooding, even an inch of water is enough to ruin so much. For those first few days after the storm, Lisa and I kept a positive attitude and managed to make significant progress with our clean up. But coming to services that Friday evening was a powerful moment. I’ll read from my Facebook post, written very late that same Friday night:

The past two days have been tough. As you can tell from my previous posts, I had been very upbeat all week. But something struck a chord during these past two days. Maybe it was helping the 22-year-old son of a friend. He barely escaped from his home — having left through the attic — and swimming to a neighbor for safety. All his clothes — in his bureau — were sopping wet. He only brought 1/3 of his clothes — 3 loads worth — to our home, finding other families to wash the other 2/3. Or maybe it was seeing the gigantic piles of trash in front of neighbors’ yards — who lost so much more than we did. Or maybe it was going to Shabbat services earlier this evening. And getting asked by synagogue friends and acquaintances, “How did you do?” and being sad to share that we flooded. Or seeing clergy and staff who knew what happened to us — who greeted us with hugs and “I’m so sorry.” And during services, being moved to tears by the beautiful music and the profound words of the Rabbi. It was the first time I cried after the flood. Was it grieving? A loss of innocence — knowing that a flood could happen again? Tears of joy for being lucky to still have a home? Or thanking G-d I’m still alive and have the opportunity to rebuild? I don’t mean to be melodramatic. But, there is no question — that was a tumultuous and life-changing experience.

This talk was supposed to be about how Judaism has shaped my life. To be direct: I’m not sure how Judaism has shaped my life – rather and simply, Judaism is a basic, innate part of my life. Judaism is part of my “nefesh” – my soul – and it influences the decisions I make at home and at work. It forms the basis for our family calendar – celebrating Shabbat and the Jewish holidays throughout the year. When I’m on the Membership Committee or I sing in the Volunteer Choir, not only do I want Judaism to be a part of my own life, but I want Judaism to shape other people’s lives. For those who want to be a part of it, I want to help create a vibrant and joyous Jewish community. I did this as a camp counselor in Georgia, as a student at my university Hillel, and now as an active participant in our incredible Congregation Beth Israel community.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy and sweet New Year.

May we all go from strength to strength.