L’hitra’ot to Lorel

Cantor Lorel Zar-Kessler’s glorious 31-year tenure of music, prayer, study, teaching, caring and friendship at Beth El is coming to an end. With our months-long series of events honoring her, we as a congregation have had a special opportunity to embrace the holy work of transition to honor her and her legacy.

Our special year of events to honor and celebrate will culminate with our L’Hitra’ot to Lorel Farewell Gala Weekend on Sept. 24-25, 2021, which will include Lorel’s last Shabbat Rinah, Torah Study with our Rabbi Emeritus Larry Kushner, and a Saturday evening celebration.

Looking back over the year, part of the challenge was figuring out how to address the physical distance constraints that the public health crisis brought, particularly during the winter months. We wanted to bring congregants together in ways that were personal and meaningful. We planned a variety of events and activities that were inclusive and used different formats to help our members and Lorel connect, learn and reminisce.

Because study is central to all that Lorel has taught us, we kicked off the year with Torah Study with Rabbi Marc Margolius from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (introduced by Rabbi Josh Breindel). Rabbi Margolius’ teaching (“A Messenger of the People”) from Parsha Tetzevah brought personal meaning to the participants and also relevance to Lorel’s impact as our leader and teacher. His final words of tribute to Lorel from Likutei Moharan were very moving, and we thank him for setting the spiritual tone for our series of events.

Bringing in our members’ love for poetry and song, a poetry reading and a Sephardic song concert brought out our love and appreciation for Lorel and entertained us during the difficult winter months. You may also read the poems here.

Over the winter, we asked people to decorate dozens of paper hearts using photographs, colorful designs and materials along with hand-written messages. This was a wonderful opportunity to think about what has been most meaningful to us in Lorel’s teaching and what has helped people feel that being Jewish is a good thing in their lives. A Zoom workshop to help congregants learn fun ways to decorate their paper hearts was a small way to bring people together when we needed to stay apart physically.

Looking up through the crocheted and knitted hearts. (Click on this or any other image on the page to see a larger version.)

Congregants also created crocheted and knitted flowers that were used to create a colorful blanket. The blanket became a canopy with the paper hearts forming the walls for our community art project in the garden. Walking through the covered arches evoked a sense of wrapping ourselves with all of our love and appreciation for Lorel and her singing and teaching. Hearts and Flowers video.

Continuing with the themes of teaching, learning and mindful meditation, we were honored to have Rabbi Sheila Weinberg and Rabbi Nancy Flam teach us at two Contemplative Shabbat mornings. We were also honored to be the audience for a conversation between Lorel and Rabbi Liza Stern on the topic of “The Future of American Judaism.” They showed how they engage in conversation, sometimes worry about our future, and work through questions.

As the pandemic eased, Shir El, Beth El’s chorus, was delighted to be able to hold one of our first hybrid events, a musical tribute to Lorel with singing in person and live-streamed. They surprised Lorel with some lighthearted tunes and video clips from their years of singing together.

Next, we commissioned our artists to come up with a way to celebrate and commemorate all of the life cycle events in which Lorel was involved during more than 31 years. They designed an amazing “Tree of Life” scroll on canvas printed with photographs submitted by members, depicting a tree branch spanning the four seasons, inscribed with names of people who experienced a teen or adult b’nai mitzvah, a baby-naming or brit milah, a marriage or a death with Lorel’s guidance. The scroll, with its wood-crafted spindle and scroll cover, constitute a lasting gift to Lorel. In September, we mounted the scroll in a custom-built display for viewing in one of our meeting rooms. The scroll will be officially presented to Lorel during the Farewell Gala weekend.

Some of the other events our members organized:

  • Benyamin Lichtenstein played “Misty” on clarinet backed by a recording of the Hal Leonard RealBook quartet.
  • Smaller affinity groups (the gabbais, the Jubilee group, adult b’nai mitzvah, Lorel’s Shabbat Torah Study and her Middot study group) organized themselves and gathered with Lorel, mostly on Zoom, to reminisce and connect.
  • The parents of the Torah class of 1999 made this musical tribute video.
  • We facilitated a limited number of one-on-one meetings with Lorel and congregants in the Beth El garden using our new patio umbrellas and chairs.
  • To help us in this process of saying goodbye to Lorel, Rabbi Breindel and congregant Janet Strassman-Perlmutter offered a session on transition called “Beth El in Transition: Jewish Perspectives on Change and Loss.” Additional sessions are planned this fall.
  • To honor Lorel’s teaching of trope and to honor the Torah, we encouraged congregants to sign up to chant or read Torah or Haftarah for every Shabbat through the year, as well as light the Shabbat candles and bring spices for Havdalah. We continue to do these things every week as part of honoring our tradition, and we urge congregants to continue signing up for these roles going forward.


This transition has resulted in an outpouring of connection, appreciation, gratitude, sadness, blessing, joy, awareness and growth for all of us. The multitude of blessings from Lorel over decades is a holy and inestimable gift. As we express our gratitude and love, and embrace her in farewell, we can all feel the love of being Jewish she has shared with us and carry it on with strength.

News article on Lorel’s retirement