The Jewish Journey
One on one with Cantor Matthew Austerklein
By David Thomas
1. Can you talk about your journey of faith and how you came to be a Cantor ?

I grew up in the synagogue since I was five years old. In the Jewish tradition, leading services is not only something for the “clergy,” but an obligation and opportunity for every Jew. So in my community, I was leading services and doing liturgical readings from the time I was a bar mitzvah (13) onward, and was a teen tutor in our religious school. So Jewish life began as a place where I could sing and could be of service. As I went to college, I had growingly religious questions and really found that I wanted to give my full spiritual life a chance. Thus I chose a vocation as a cantor, in which one lives in community as a musical leader and teacher of Judaism.


2. Music is a huge part of your life and faith, Can you talk about your musical path as well as non religious music you listen to?

I have always sung, in both religious and secular settings, and picked up the cello at the age of 10. Heading off to college, I thought I would end up a professional cellist or an English teacher (becoming a cantor was an unexpected but beautiful synthesis of these two impulses). I sang in chamber choir throughout college, and performed in musicals and opera scenes. 

One of the things that I learned in those years is that music is part of spirituality. Paying attention to each tone that we sing parallels to how we pay attention diligently to others. Putting music out into the world is an act of love, a way that God shows us how to give love unconditionally. I owe these insights to my voice teacher in Vienna, Austria – Paulette Herbich – and they have stayed with me ever since.

I both enjoy and perform music in many Jewish genres and languages. Though I appreciate and listen to many American genres including pop, hip-hop, funk, and blues, I also gravitate toward choral/classical music & folk music, particularly those of the British Isles.


3. What's something people misunderstand about Judaism?

A typical caricature of Judaism is that it is about law, whereas other faiths are about love. This is both wrong, and a false dichotomy. The Torah, through laws, calls us to love who God loves – including and especially those on the margins (the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the Levite, among others). The law is also itself seen as a gift of God's love, like a parent imparting wisdom to their child so that they can have the best life possible. Love is deeply expressed in obligation to one another, and to God.


4. Is Judaism evolving in its approach and becoming more spiritual as well as individual?

I think that your point about “spiritual” and “individual” is very telling. We have a tendency to associate religious forms (or even “religion”) with communal identities and practices, and “spirituality” with the individual and his/her emotions and longings, and/or personally conceived relationship with God or transcendence. Hence being “spiritual but not religious.”

Judaism, like many other faiths, has always been spiritual. It has always dealt with the meaning of human life, the practices of love and justice, and our relationship to God. Judaism, like all faiths, evolves over time. Today, there are perhaps more opportunities to engage with Judaism that are more focused on the individual, but it is never solely in that way. That is because Jewish spirituality is embodied in peoplehood – in realizing our spiritual commitments and religious life through building community with others.


5.. Can anyone become Jewish ?

Yes. More than cognitive assert to a belief system, converting to Judaism is like being adopted into a family. It takes a year (or years) of preparation and practice. A convert will learn Hebrew language, Jewish laws, prayers, obligations, and celebrations in community with other Jews during this time, forming both their faith and their commitment to other Jews and Jewish practice.


6. Do Jewish people see other groups who are oppressed and maybe targeted and want to advocate for them?

Identifying with the suffering of others is a core religious sentiment. Jews, having experienced great suffering over many centuries and retelling it as part of our holidays and history, are often particularly sensitive to oppression. While narratives around oppression have been complicated and politicized in America today, you can often find Jews in organizations supporting minorities, refugees, the disabled, and other marginal groups. As it says in the Torah: “And you shall love the stranger, for you too were strangers in the land of Egypt – I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:34).”


7. When you pass away, what do you want to be remembered for?

 I would like to be remembered for being kind, doing what is right, and caring for my family and the Jewish people.


8. What is the future for Judaism?

I believe that Judaism will continue to grow, particularly in the land of Israel. Beyond that, I cannot say what Judaism will be other than what it is – a faith of familial obligation, communal practice, deep wisdom, and spirituality. That is its past, and that is what I believe will endure into its future.


9. Do you ever see a resolution to the Palestine Israeli conflict?

I think it will take a different political constellation than we currently have. Israel and Israelis are not going anywhere, no matter what narratives are developed to attempt to discredit their sovereignty or indigenous status. I don't think any resolution will be reached until negotiating partners and the international community is broadly willing to recognize this. Nationalism for Jews or Palestinian Arabs cannot be permanently forged on the basis of victimhood, actual or contrived. I hope that one day both groups' aspirations for self-government will be actualized peacefully.


10. As a Cantor have you felt called during this tumultuous pandemic time to be a peacemaker?

This is the theme of so many sermons and religious messages I hear from synagogues and houses of worship today, including my own. We cannot see people simply as avatars for causes or ideologies. We must see them as worlds in and of themselves, as in the image of God. A Jewish teaching states that a group of angels follows each human being, proclaiming: “Behold, an icon of the Holy One (God)!” Our fellow human beings are not digitally-curated symbols – they are flesh and blood like us, full of mystery, imperfection, and complexity. I don't think we can solve our problems as human beings or as Americans if we cannot embrace this truth.


11. As a Jew seeing all of this tribalism and hate in America do you have hope?

My colleague, Rabbi/Cantor Jeff Myers, suffered a horrible anti-semitic attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. He does not use this “H-word” anymore – it simply spawns more of the same. I call on us to follow his example, and see how changing our language changes our actions and perceptions.

The Jewish people, in every generation, has experienced the darkest sides of humanity. Yet hope is always found – not in the experience of tragedy, but in the response. As Elijah discovered in the cleft of the rock, God is not in the wind , or the earthquake, or the fire – but rather in the still small voice and the call to service (1 Kings 19). I am always inspired by the human spirit and how we come to recognize our common humanity. Having lived through Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida, I've seen that particularly as people here volunteer their assistance, funds, and open hearts to help others rebuild. The Torah was given by God not because it would prevent disaster, but that it would create a society that could respond with compassion, resilience, and spirituality when suffering occurs.I think there is an aspect of this in most faith traditions, and so to this end there is always the promise of hope. 


David Thomas.jpg

David Thomas

Global Human Rights Journalist



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