Call her Cantor | Detroit Jewish News
The Temple Israel elder will be installed as a cantor at the Central Synagogue in New York.
Jenna Pearsall’s installation as cantor at New York’s prestigious Central Synagogue on November 18 will mark the end of her cantoring journey and the start of a new career.
Pearsall, 27, grew up in Wixom. Her mother, Leah McMillan, says she was musical even as a baby, humming and dancing when she heard a tune. But Pearsall says her real interest in musical performance began when she was in fourth grade at Loon Lake Elementary School. She performed “Tomorrow” by Anne at the school talent show for a standing ovation. “That’s when it clicked for me,” she said.
Soon after, cantor Neil Michaels of Temple Israel, where her family is a longtime member, cast her in a musical where she did a solo, and she never looked back.
She learned to read music and sight sing during three summers of choir at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in western Michigan, a musical theater camp at the Jewish Community Center, and a musical theater program at Interlochen Arts. Camp in northern Michigan. She honed her skills through lessons with Michaels’ wife Stephanie, choir and musical theater productions at Walled Lake Central High, and solo and ensemble state festivals.
The singers of Temple Israel were quick to take advantage of his talents. Cantor Michael Smolash invited her to join a teenager tefillah (prayer) when she was 13, and stayed with her until she went to college. The teenagers ran services three or four times a year.
Despite the many accolades she received for her singing, Pearsall did not consider music a career. She was determined to go to the University of Michigan but never considered her music school. Her father, Robert McMillan, is a computer scientist who touted the benefits of a career in the field. Pearsall started out as a computer science student, but felt frustrated when she didn’t like her studies.
His “Aha” moment
After her freshman year at Michigan, she went to Israel on a Birthright trip and “it blew a light bulb,” she said. “I saw cantoring as a way to connect my two passions, music and Jewish identity.”
Back in Ann Arbor, she switched to a joint major in Jewish Studies and Anthropology and began planning to apply to the Cantorial School.
On weekends, she returned to the Temple of Israel, where the singers taught her how to conduct various services. For two years she led High Holiday services for a congregation in Flint.
Her parents were pleasantly surprised by her decision, she said, adding, “My brother, Scott, just graduated from Michigan in computer science, so my dad has his computer guy.”
Those who knew Pearsall at Temple Israel were not surprised at his change in leadership.
“Jenna has always represented the best aspects of our community,” Smolash said. “Congregants have always been moved by her beautiful voice, inspiring leadership and tremendous heart. It is such a pleasure to see her ascend to a pulpit like Central Synagogue, where her talents will have a broad and creative impact on American Jewish worship music.
He said it was an added pleasure to see her share the melodies of Temple Israel with her new congregation.
Steve Weiss of West Bloomfield, a regular on Temple Israel’s services, has been a Pearsall fan for many years. Every time the teenage group has been at services, she has really stood out, he said.
After the death of her mother and brother, Weiss started a shiva minyan and invited Jenna to be one of the leaders. “A woman heard her and said, ‘Oh my God, she’s better than Barbra Streisand,'” Weiss recalled. “When she sings, she neshama (the soul) is in plain sight. She is a gift for the Jewish people.
Pearsall spent five years training as a cantor at Hebrew Union College: Jewish Institute of Religion, the first year in Israel and the remainder in New York. In addition to singing, she learned guitar and piano.
And she spent a lot of time at Central Synagogue, one of the largest Reform congregations in the country with 2,600 member families. She worked there with groups of young people and in her last two years at the cantorial school she was a cantorial trainee, running services and working with young people. His debut as a cantor trainee coincided with the onset of the COVID pandemic. “During my first service, there was no one in the sanctuary, which was really strange,” she said.
Pearsall joins the temple pulpit team of six rabbis and cantors.
Cantor Neil Michaels of Temple Israel will participate in Pearsall’s installation ceremony.
“Jenna possesses all the qualities of a natural leader: authenticity, intelligence and integrity,” Michaels said. “That, coupled with her passion for transforming lives through Jewish music and uniting people, makes her a truly special singer, and we are so proud of all she has accomplished and will accomplish.”
Pearsall was married on June 12 to Connor Pearsall, whom she met in college when they both worked in restaurants in Ann Arbor. He loved the food industry and now works in a restaurant in New York.
She describes her mother as her “biggest fan”. Her father, who she says grew up without a religion, likes to watch her services from a distance – but he flew to New York to see her lead Yom Kippur services in person. Leah, Robert and Scott will all be in New York for the installation.