Tribune local story By Donald Liebenson, Special to the Tribune 9:31 a.m. CST, March 6, 2013
Lynda Dresher's mother always told her, "You're never too old to reinvent yourself." So it's no wonder that, now 60, she is leaving Congregation B'nai Torah in Highland Park, where she has served as cantor for 11 years, to begin training to become the spiritual director of a hospital. The temple will honor Dresher on April 26 during the Shabbat service, which is "perfect," she says, "since my favorite things in life are God and prayer." Dresher's journey has been anything but orthodox. Her story is kind of like "The Jazz Singer," but with a much happier ending — although it is not without its setbacks and personal challenges. In her 20s, Dresher was a jazz-blues lounge singer, a fixture in Chicago hotels and clubs in the heyday of live music in the city. Unlike Al Jolson's conflicted character in the vintage film, her parents, Ellin and Sam Wener, were supportive. She did not grow up in a strictly religious household. She attended High Holiday services and the occasional Shabbat worship with her parents. It was her grandmother, Anne Short, who helped shape her eventual decision to pursue becoming a cantor. Short was extremely active in the temple and Jewish causes such as Israel Bonds, Dresher said, and recruited her granddaughter to sing for her sisterhood luncheons. That's how Dresher built a repertoire of Jewish songs. But her real awakening came later in life when she was in her 40s and working in the advertising trade show business. She attended a program in Wisconsin run by Debbie Friedman, a singer and songwriter who is credited with making Jewish music accessible to contemporary audiences. The Jewish newspaper, The Forward, hailed Friedman as "the Joan Baez of Jewish song." Friedman died in 2011 at the age of 59. "I hadn't even considered becoming a cantor," Dresher said, but when I went to her seven-day program, with song leaders from all over the world singing and praying from morning 'till night, I was transformed. I knew I needed to change my business. I was blown away by the spiritual experience." B'nai Torah hired Dresher on her voice, she said, since she had not yet entered the five-year cantor certification program. She did a year later, starting at the American Conference of Cantors in collaboration with Hebrew Union College. "I needed to know more about what it was to be a cantor, rather than just be a soloist," she said. I wanted to read the Torah. I wanted to teach and tutor." She also attended classes for a year at Spertus College to learn Hebrew. During this period, she got divorced and was a single mother to two daughters, Jody and Cheryl. She's now married to Elliott Dresher and has a stepdaughter, Toni. "It was not easy," she said, "but if you really want something bad enough, you will do whatever it takes to accomplish it. Everything happens for a reason. My life journey continues to evolve toward the spiritual experience and how I can bring compassion to others." Her latest transition was born out of a life-changing "difficult" surgery and recovery. "My calling is hospital chaplaincy," she said. "Because I've been through a major crisis in my life, I feel I have the tools to help others who are dealing with pain, death and dying on a daily basis."
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