As a 9-year-old camper at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., Emily C. Simkin became enchanted by modern Jewish music. Even at that young age she realized how singing and melody could unite a community.
“I knew I wanted to be a cantor then,” Simkin told NJJN in a telephone interview, and in July she will join Temple Emanu-El of Edison as its new cantor and will work in partnership with spiritual leader Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman.
“I’m so excited with this opportunity,” Simkin said. “It’s exactly where I want to be.”
Erica Jordan, chairman of the cantorial search committee and past Temple Emanu-El president, said that Simkin is a “terrific fit” for the congregation. “We were not only impressed with her voice, which is beautiful, but also the experience she has with teens, camps, and the empathy she showed toward everyone.”
Simkin’s Temple Emanu-El congregants will first hear her remotely, as all the synagogue’s services are livestreamed due to the spread of Covid-19. “It’s certainly challenging, with no in-person services,” she said. “It is giving all of us space to be challenged in new ways. I’m flexible to do what we must.”
A native of Audubon, Pa., Simkin, 27, was invested in May from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is currently living in Staten Island with husband Adam Halpern, who is attending Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Manhattan.
Simkin believes her experience as a student cantor, including several stints in New Jersey — at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough and Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills — helped shape her overall approach. She gained experience designing curriculum, training b’nei mitzvah students, participating in lifecycle events, and working with choirs, and also learned to integrate mindfulness — the practice of accepting one’s self and treating one’s self as one would a good friend — into her singing for the benefit of her congregants.
“I valued getting to know those communities,” she said.
As a student, Simkin spent a summer at another Temple Emanu-El, this one in Honolulu. “It was only for two months but was a different experience,” Simkin said. “I created a Shabbat service that bridged Hawaiian mindfulness with Jewish liturgy.”
Other building blocks in her career include serving as a solo cantorial presence for the High Holidays and Shabbat services at the Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore, filling a role as Jewish studies educator at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, and working various jobs at Temple Shalom of Newton in Massachusetts while a student at Berklee College of Music.
Simkin is also working on her own compositions.
“During the pandemic, it gave me time to write some songs and prayers about joy and sorrow,” she said. “I am also working on some pieces with Kabbalat Shabbat and parts of the Amidah. I am hoping to finish them and someday get them published.”
And she intends to complete a course she started in clinical pastoral education at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
“I definitely want to get involved in pastoral care,” Simkin said. “I feel I can make a definite contribution and would enjoy helping people in that area.”
For now, she’s focused on uniting members of her new congregation through song.
“I really feel our music is best sung in unison,” she said. “It brings us together and connects us. The more I studied our music in relation to Torah, the more I wanted to lead a congregation in song.”