HomeMarch 2012Making Their Mark

Making Their Mark

Cantor Marcia Tilchin and Dr. Scott Spitzer arrived in Orange County just ten years ago and have become so entrenched in our Jewish community that it’s hard to believe these transplants haven’t been here all their lives.  Tilchin grew up in Michigan and Spitzer in New York.  They were educated at Wesleyan and Brandeis (respectively).  Tilchin went on to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), and Spitzer earned his doctorate in political science at Columbia University.  Both were raised within the Conservative movement and each, separately, embraced a religious life in adulthood.
Although Tilchin had a very traditional upbringing, during her years as a performer she strayed somewhat.  The idea to pursue a path as a Jewish professional came divinely – through the agency of a devout Mennonite woman who, with her husband, ran a ministry in Kentucky that Tilchin had visited with a friend.  Around the same time, Spitzer was living in New York City, earning his Ph.D. in political science at Columbia University, working in city politics and on social justice causes.  In 1993 his parents decided to take the family to Israel.  It was on that trip that Spitzer had his spiritual awakening.  He returned from Israel with a longing to engage in Jewish life on Manhattan’s upper west side.  He began regularly attending services, participating in religious programming, and surrounding himself with observant Jewish friends and thinkers.  He and Tilchin met at a parashat hashavua Shabbat lunch group at the home of a mutual friend.  The rest, as they say, is history!
Tilchin and Spitzer married in 1995 while she was still in cantorial school and he was writing his dissertation.  In 2000 Spitzer secured his first position as a professor at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey.  While in rabbinical school, Tilchin served Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, New York, on a part-time basis.  When Congregation B’nai Israel made the decision to hire a Hazzan, Rabbi Elie Spitz contacted Rabbi Morton Leifman, dean of cantorial school during Spitz’s years at the seminary.  Rabbi Leifman immediately thought of Tilchin, but the timing was not right.  Eighteen months and two cantorial searches later, Tilchin and Spitzer found themselves on a plane to California, 4-year old Avi and baby Sheindl in tow, never imagining that they would actually move there.  They have a dear friend, Rabbi/Cantor Lilly Kaufman to thank in part.  After she interviewed and was offered this unique position in the spring of 2001, she returned to New York and told Tilchin that CBI had her name all over it.  She was right!
Things went right from the get-go.  Search committee head, Bruce Duner, met them at the John Wayne Airport and took them directly to Balboa Island and Newport Beach.  In their nearly five-day visit, they not only came to appreciate all the wonderful aspects of this community; they found their roots – in Tustin!  Tilchin’s rabbi growing up in suburban Michigan was Jacob Segal, father of CBI congregant Jeremy.  Tilchin’s parents were very close with Rabbi Segal and his wife, Jean, so reuniting with Jeremy and meeting Jan and the children created instant family.  As if that weren’t enough, during Shabbat services Spitzer recognized childhood friend, Ayal Willner, in the foyer.  Both boys were raised in Syracuse, spent holidays together and Ayal’s father, David, prepared Spitzer for his Bar Mitzvah.  It was another surprising and joyous reunion.  It was clear almost instantly that working with Rabbi Spitz and serving Congregation B’nai Israel, among new and old friends was besheret.
Ten years later, Tilchin is a major spiritual leader in the Greater Orange County area, and the well known cantor of Congregation B’nai Israel.  Her involvement in a multiplicity of civic organizations and interfaith groups positions her as a Jewish leader and role model.  She has served on the executive council of the Cantors’ Assembly and is currently on the Cantors’ Assembly placement committee.  Locally, she works with the Orange County Interfaith Coalition for the Environment, is on the Advisory Committee Interfaith Youth Council and was president of the Interfaith Council of Central Orange County from 2006-2008.  This year she is co-teaching  a class on prayer and music at Tarbut v’Torah with musician Kevin Bachelder.  In addition to her full-time position as Cantor, her active family, and the affiliations mentioned above, Tilchin is completing rabbinical school at The Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
Although Spitzer gave up his position at Seton Hall and his work on urban poverty issues in NYC, he holds a tenure-track position in political science at Cal State Fullerton (CSUF) where he teaches a wide array of undergraduate and graduate courses.  His passion for social justice is still vibrant, but his focus is now on the importance of the Nixon era and conservative movement’s role in shaping current policy.  He is currently organizing the Nixon Library’s first annual student research conference, to be held this April. At CBI, Spitzer has embraced his community and loves participating in synagogue events of every kind.  In tandem with Carl Cedar, he is the leader of a very exciting Junior Congregation that regularly attracts 15 to 25 children ages 5 to 12 on Shabbat mornings; and his Tot Shabbat service is very popular.  This is a great joy for him, and he looks forward to doing much more for kids, young and old, including teenagers, as Avi, Sheindl and Yaira (now 8 and born here in California) grow up in the CBI community.
Evidence of this couple’s passion for music and Jewish learning is everywhere.  You will see them at CSP lectures and retreats, at TVT Kabbalat Shabbat, performing and participating at CBI functions and… once in a while…  Spitzer performs in the rock band, Too Cool for Shul.  Their love of music and Jewish belonging has been passed on to the next generation.  All three children play musical instruments, sing in synagogue and school and regularly perform in the musicals put on by J Stage at the JCC.
Through simcha, song and their own delightful approach to family, outreach and yiddishkeit, Tilchin and Spitzer have enriched their congregation and the greater Orange County Community.  They will celebrate their first decade here at CBI’s annual gala on Sunday night, March 25, 2012, at Congregation B’nai Israel.  Opening Night on Broadway will be a spirited evening with dinner, entertainment, silent and live auction.  The gala will start at 5 p.m.  For information on ad space in the tribute journal or to purchase tickets please call the CBI office at (714) 730-9693.

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  1. I was the friend that visited the Mennonite lady in KY with Marcia. I have lost contact with her and hope she reads this and can contact me. It was good to read this article and catch up on her life.


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