Meet Ze’evi, Jewish Song Leader of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / July 10, 2024

The GatherDC blog strives to present a holistic portrait of the DMV’s Jewish community, sharing a wide variety of Jewish voices and perspectives. If you have a 20- or 30-something to nominate as our Jewish Person of the Week or for a Spotted in Jewish DMV feature, please email us!

Ze’evi and I meet one late afternoon at Yerevan Cafe in Adams Morgan. As we begin, a rainstorm arrives, and I question the wisdom of leaving my apartment without a jacket. One thing that I don’t question, though, is Cantor Ze’evi’s passion for community-building and their love for Jewish wisdom, as we spend nearly an hour chatting about their job search in the DMV, the relationship between music and interpretation of Jewish texts, how to create a truly welcoming community, and the so-called junior choir to cantor pipeline. 

Ze'evi at a microphone, leading a group in song.

Samuel: What brought you to the DMV?

Ze’evi: We just moved last June. I was ordained as a cantor last year, and I’ve always loved DC from afar – my sibling went to GW, and I have some friends who relocated here right after college. 

When I was looking for where I was going to start my cantorate, I was looking for a community that really valued getting to know everybody in a deep way. I and two of my classmates are, to our knowledge, the first three trans cantors to be ordained in any denomination. It was really wonderful that we got to go through that experience together and not be alone. But, doing the placement process as a soon-to-be cantor, as a non-binary person, was a little bit fraught.

Ze'evi embraces a large, rainbow-wrapped scroll. Temple Shalom, where I ended up, was the one place that was like: We loved your thesis [on non-binary liturgy, and examining non-binary Hebrew as a way of re-examining gender in theology and liturgy]. We have so many congregants who would be excited by this. We want you to teach us about it, and we want to have you in our community. I ended up in DC mostly because Temple Shalom was such a wonderful fit, and continues to be a year later. 

Samuel: What do you think made Temple Shalom the right fit? What are they doing that other communities might emulate, when we think about really making a community welcoming and inclusive?

Ze’evi: You can’t just have good intentions; you have to turn those into actions. One of the things I really appreciated is that our Senior Rabbi, Rachel Ackerman, educated the community before I got there. It was so lovely to be able to come in and for there to be a base level of understanding about what it means to be trans, what it means to use they / them pronouns, and what Judaism thinks about being trans. There’s a difference between being welcoming and actually establishing a community that allows people to feel like they belong. 

Samuel: Why did you become a cantor?

Ze’evi: First, I grew up in a Reform synagogue in the junior choir. The pipeline of junior choir to cantor was very present.

Second, I grew up at Eisner, a Jewish summer camp, where I became a song leader as a teenager. That was my first time leading services, and that was really impactful. I kind of broke the mold of who a song leader often is – I’m a very soft-spoken, collaborative person. When I applied, as a 16-year old, the Assistant Director called me back and was like…Are you sure? But, I don’t think you have to be the most outgoing person in the room to lead services well.

Ze'evi sits on a shale bench in front of a mountain lake.With that experience, I ended up studying music in college, then became a Jewish educator. I just really loved being engaged in Jewish life and in the synagogue and, combining that with my passion for music and leading services, the sum of all that is a cantor. 

Samuel: How does music resonate with you Jewishly?

Ze’evi: Music is a really powerful tool that can get deep into people’s emotions and psyche. Words can take longer to do that. I think that singing together is one of the easiest ways to make people feel like they’re part of a community. Also, music has a really unique ability to interpret prayers in a specific way – if you have a piece of liturgy,  you can sing it in a bunch of different ways, and that will impact how you understand what those words mean, based on how the music is making you feel.

Samuel: What feels particularly relevant in your Jewish life right now?

Ze’evi: Right now, I think there are a lot of people struggling with what it means to be Jewish and how to participate in Jewish community. What causes people to walk through the doors of a synagogue, and what causes them to think that this is not a place for them? As a clergyperson, I try to balance the many different needs and viewpoints people walk through the door with. It’s challenging, but I think the most important thing is that we continue to be in communication and conversation with each other. We cannot live in echo chambers where we just talk to people we agree with – that’s not how we grow or learn, and it’s not very Jewish.

Ze'evi speaks into a bullhorn.

Samuel: What do you mean when you say it isn’t very Jewish?

Ze’evi: What I love about Talmud is that it maintains the minority opinion. The [whole] argument is there, documented for all of history. We don’t just take the bottom line of what the decision was – if there is a decision! What’s really wonderful about Judaism is that we’re able to come together with many, many, many different opinions and lay them out on the table. And, even if we don’t come to a decision at the end of our conversation, we can say: I think I understand you and where you’re coming from better, and perhaps you can understand me and where I’m coming from better. We don’t have to agree, but we can sit with each other, respect each other, and be in community together. 

And, I’ll say: I cannot do this alone. It takes a lot of people who buy into the idea that we need to continue being in community together and actually discuss the things that are hard.

Ze'evi holds a black and white kitten.Samuel: How do queerness and Jewishness live for you as overlapping identities?

Ze’evi: I’ve definitely experienced a sense of isolation before as a Queer person and a trans person in Jewish spaces. I grew up in a large suburban congregation in Massachusetts. I came out as Queer when I was 14, and I was the only person in this 800 family congregation who was “out” in any way. I had this sense of tremendous pride, but it was also lonely. 

But, one of the things that I love about Judaism is that there’s a history of queerness and transness documented in our texts. Commentary from some of the earliest rabbinic writings has this expansive idea of sex and gender, and that’s been a part of Judaism for centuries and centuries. I like to bring commentaries like that into my teaching, to say: We’ve always been here. There have always been Queer and trans people in Jewish community and Jewish texts, in Jewish canon. We’re not reinventing the wheel; we are just uncovering things that have always been a part of Judaism. 

Samuel: A few quick ones to close. What’s something you’re bad at?

Ze’evi: I tend to say “yes” too much. I’m learning how to say “let me get back to you.”

Samuel: What are you feeling proud about right now?

Ze’evi: I feel proud that I’ve been able to reengage a lot of people back into services and temple programming who have felt not-as-engaged since before Covid, and that I’ve been able to help bridge generational gaps and bring people who might otherwise not interact together in temple spaces. 

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they and why?

Ze’evi: I’d like to invite three trans scholars and teachers whose writings deeply influenced my identity, theology, and work on nonbinary liturgy, but whom I’ve never met personally: Joy Ladin, Max Strassfeld, and Kate Bornstein.

Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence: When Jews of the DMV gather…

Ze’evi: We gather with many identities, opinions, and lived experiences, but hopefully we find a sense of commonality in our Judaism.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.