Jazz, Funk, and Legacy in the Work of a Cantor
Jessica Turnoff Ferrari ’95, the cantor of a Jupiter, Fl.-based congregation, follows in the footsteps of her mother and draws musical inspiration from her experience singing with a canonical "Haverband."
When Jessica Turnoff Ferrari ’95 is leading a Florida congregation in the age-old rituals of Jewish prayer, it might surprise everyone that her roots as a cantor lie in both the example of her mother’s own cantorial career and her time at Haverford with the semi-legendary campus band Hiram.
A collective that cranked out R&B, soul, jazz, and funk in the vein of Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, the band’s full name (which varied over the years) was The Hiram L. Weinstein All-Star Memorial Funk Contingent with the Re-evolutionary Horn Junta featuring the Subterranean Pan-Galactic Conspiratory Rhythm Movement, and it was Ferrari’s prime musical outlet during her college years. “If Hiram were a class,” she says, “it would have been the most useful preparation for my career.”
That career is a multifaceted ministry of Jewish clerical work, psychotherapy, and energy healing—with a little jazz singing on the side. At 43, she’s based in Boca Raton, Fla., is the cantor for Temple Beth Am in Jupiter, and performs weddings for interfaith couples.
“I try to help focus on the universal aspects of Judaism,” she says of the thread that runs through her work. “Most people believe in gratitude and unity, and most Jewish prayers seek to invoke these things.”
Her backstory is laced with these themes, having trained with her mother, Cantor Ann Turnoff. “For thousands of years before the seminary was established, men became cantors by learning the craft from their father,” she says. “That has been my path, except it was my mother.”
She started early, singing in synagogue alongside her mother and eventually leading services on her own. By the time she was a teenager, Ferrari would work with congregations that needed a short-term cantor. (As a Haverford student, she recalls, she filled in for a cantor in Allentown for a few months.) Over time she expanded her practice to include a focus on interfaith couples.
It’s a specialty she came to via personal experience—her husband, Marcus Ferrari, is not Jewish. (They have two children, ages 4 and 7.) “I think it makes me more approachable for congregants who themselves have an interfaith marriage— they know I am not going to judge them,” she says. “And I think it makes me sensitive to the non-Jewish spouse, particularly when a child is becoming a bar or bat mitzvah or when they are standing under the chuppah to be married in a faith that is not their own.”
As she has embraced the sometimes-nontraditional needs of her congregation, they have helped her put a little Hiram back into her life in Florida. “My congregants knew that I liked to incorporate secular music in worship services, and they introduced me to the Joe Scott Trio in northern Palm Beach County,” she says. Ferrari got her jazz pipes back in full swing with the band, and together they’ve played local shows and put together a revue exploring the Jewish roots of the Great American Songbook.
Whether she’s singing a centuries-old prayer or a Gershwin tune, Ferrari still hears the root notes of her younger days singing alongside her mother and belting out Jackson 5 tunes with the Hiram crew. “As a kid, singing was my thing,” she says, “and now my hobby is my job. There’s nothing better than that.”