Engaging the Community with Music
Growing up, Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot had a dream: She wanted to become an actress.
After college, she got to live that dream, spending four years in New York City working in show business. However, it wasn’t what she imagined it was going to be like.
“I wasn’t happy,” she said. “The more I worked as an actress, the less happiness I experienced.”
Wissot returned to Los Angeles, her hometown, to decide what she wanted to do next. She sat down with Cantor Nathan Lam, then of Stephen S. Wise Temple, her childhood synagogue. She’d studied singing with Lam and sang at the bimah at the temple when she was a child.
Lam told Wissot about a cantor’s mission to Israel, and she was intrigued. She went on the 10-day mission, and decided that she wanted to become a cantor.
“My Jewish identity was connected to my family and my synagogue,” she said. “I really needed to go and found out I love theater and acting, but it wasn’t what I was meant to be doing.”
Wissot received joint ordination as both a rabbi and a cantor, and for 17 years, she’s worked at Temple Judea in Tarzana. She also had the opportunity to serve as the cantor at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the place she first engaged with her religion. As a child, she enjoyed going to services there.
“When I was about six years old, there was a Friday night when my parents wouldn’t take me to temple,” she said. “I decided I would pack up my little purse and try to walk from my home in Encino up the hill to Stephen Wise. It didn’t seem that far when we drove. My parents picked me up from the curb and brought me to services.”
To others, Wissot’s enthusiasm was clear. “I was absolutely in love with the services, and [temple] felt like the best place in the world to me,” she said. “I think everyone knew I was headed for some version of the clergy long before I did.”
Hearing Lam’s singing at her synagogue inspired her to use music to help others connect to their Judaism as well.
“Music has a way of communicating things that words cannot. Singing Jewish music does something to people. It makes people feel the depth of their Jewish experience.”
“Music has a way of communicating things that words cannot,” she said. “Singing Jewish music does something to people. It makes people feel the depth of their Jewish experience.”
Wissot believes that Shabbat and all the holidays are theatrical, in a way.
“These are improvisational events in our lives that allow us to touch something that language doesn’t touch,” she said. “That’s why they work. That’s why the Passover seder works, and continues to be celebrated even among people who aren’t involved in their Judaism. With music and theater, I help people open the door and find out things for themselves.”
Music helps Wissot fulfill her goal as a rabbi and cantor, which is to teach the meaningful tradition she has been handed.
“What that means is not to just pass on what’s been passed on to me,” she said. “I respond to the changing needs of our community and hand this precious gift of Judaism to people in a way that reflects who we are today and honors the legacy we carry with us from the past.”
In her job at Temple Judea, Wissot has come full circle: she works with a group of cantors-in-training It allows her to accomplish her mission of bringing Judaism to the next generation.
“They learn all kinds of Jewish music, participate in holidays and get a chance to lead our services and engage with their Judaism,” she said. “So many of those students have gone onto cantorial or rabbinic school or be engaged Jews in their community or our community. It’s very sacred and special to be able to carry that on.”
Fast Takes with Alison Wissot
Jewish Journal: What’s your favorite Jewish food?
Alison Wissot: Sufganiyot. The ones in Israel are just spectacular, but there are some phenomenal ones at Jewish bakeries in LA as well.
JJ: How about your favorite Jewish song to sing?
AW: “Al Kol Eleh.” It talks about the bitter and the sweet and having to hold onto both in our lives.
JJ: What would you be if you weren’t a rabbi?
AW: A ski instructor. I got the opportunity to ski on a sabbatical over the last few months. I got offered a job as a ski instructor. I love being on the mountain. Skiing connects me to God in a way that nothing else does.