PEABODY – As a child, armed with dolls and chutzpah, Alyssa Pessaroff Kischel would try to make her father laugh. As the cantor at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, Cantor Sam would do his best to ignore his youngest child and stay focused on his work. But every once in a while, to her great delight, she would catch his eye while he was davening on the bima, and he would crack a grin.
In May, Pessaroff Kischel accepted a role as director of Ner Tamid’s religious school, carrying on the 30-year legacy of Cantor Sam, who passed away in 2008.
Pessaroff Kischel’s journey to this point was not an easy one. After her father’s death, she distanced herself from the synagogue, finding it too hard to return to the building that, in her mind, still echoed with the sound of her father davening. “His voice was just beautiful,” she said. “It was simple. … He captivated everyone. To this day, congregants still come up to me and say ‘I can hear his voice.’ I say, ‘so can I.’ ”
She worked as a nanny, and took jobs at the JCC, and even at another Hebrew school – but for a long time, she did not want to work at the shul where her father’s memory still remained.
In 2018, Pessaroff Kischel was working down the street from Ner Tamid, at Temple Tiferet Shalom Hebrew school, alongside Rabbi Richard Perlman, the current rabbi of Ner Tamid.
“This young lady effused ruach,” he recalled. “It was exactly what we wanted for our kids.”
At the time, Perlman was reinventing Ner Tamid’s religious school, trying to develop the program to center on “the identity of our synagogue and our conservative movement.” He enlisted a former colleague, Susan Sugarman, to help him craft a curriculum and get the school up and running. Sugarman, who is retiring this year, was not planning on staying on as director. They needed someone for the long run.
Perlman met Pessaroff Kischel and knew it was a fit.
“It was a perfect situation,” he said. “She understands the philosophy, she brings some of her own ideas and techniques in education, which are fantastic – the kids love her, by the way; they just adore her – and she now has a master’s degree, she’s credentialed.” (Pessaroff Kischel received her master’s in Jewish education from Newton’s Hebrew College in June.)
Perlman approached Pessaroff Kischel with a proposal. He said that re-engaging with the shul where she grew up, taking on a leadership role in education, would be an honor to her father and would make her mother (who is a good friend of the rabbi) unbelievably happy.
“I could feel my father kicking me in the tuchus saying, ‘do this, you have to do this,’ ” Pessaroff Kischel said. “The way he talked to the community, the way the community respected him – my father was a big deal in [me] pursuing this role.”
So she took the job, first as the assistant director, working and training with Sugarman, until the board of trustees officially appointed her as director in May. “I truly enjoyed working with Susan Sugarman,” Pessaroff Kischel said. “But when she told me it was time, I said to her, ‘I’m ready.’ ”
Members of the community see the beauty in the continuity between father and daughter. Said Paula Dollin, corresponding secretary for the temple and a friend of the family, “[Cantor Sam] was a wonderful guy. Everybody loved him. And that’s how she is. Alyssa is the kindest, most generous person with children. She loves her little kids. She’s a lot like Cantor Sam was.”
Pessaroff Kischel is truly continuing her father’s legacy in Jewish education at Ner Tamid, even going as far as to adopt some of his pedagogical techniques in her bnei mitzvah teaching, like color-coding texts to help students learn trope.
“Everything feels good about being back,” she said. “It feels like where I’m meant to be. I’m teaching the children of friends I grew up with at the temple. All the parents were once students of my father. And now I get to teach their children. It’s a blessing.” Θ