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Temple Beth Sholom

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San Leandro, CA 94577
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Friday, August 04, 2000

Women cantors add their voices to local synagogues

By Paul Sterman

Linda Hirschhorn and Roslyn Barak spend their days singing the prayers of the Jewish faith.

However, when the two women cantors were growing up, neither even considered the possibility that they could one day hold this job.

Both were raised in Jewish Orthodox families in New York. At the synagogues they attended, the cantors were always men.

That's because in the Orthodox movement, only men are allowed to serve in that role. Hirschhorn and Barak never knew anything different.

Also at an Orthodox service, men and women sit in separate sections of the temple - men are downstairs and women in the balcony. Hirschhorn remembers being in the balcony of her synagogue as a young girl, raptly listening to the cantor and sitting next to his seven daughters.

Her brother got to sit downstairs and sometimes help lead services.

She remembers how good she felt when she became the cantor for Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation in San Leandro.

"It was like, after all these years, now I'm downstairs and I'm singing those melodies," says the Oakland resident, who has been at Beth Sholom since 1988. "It felt really great."

Barak is the cantor at Congregation Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco. She recalls, when she was young adult, that a woman friend said she was going to become a cantor.

"I thought it was the worst thing I had ever heard," Barak says. "I was kind of shocked. I never thought of a woman as a cantor - it was just something that wasn't done."

"Men did all that stuff."

Barak eventually changed her mind.

"I think (being a cantor) is a wonderful profession for a woman, and I think many women are finding great fulfillment in the profession," she says.

"It involves the transmission of Jewish values, and I think women normally and naturally have done that throughout history," adds Barak, who has been at Emanu-El since 1987. "We've been transmitting to our children those values through our home rituals or whatever, and now we get to do it in a more global way."

Even in the Reform and Conservative movements, it's only been in the last 25 years that women could officially become cantors. The Reform movement allowed women into the cantorate in 1975, while the Conservative movement made the move in 1986.

Cantors Ilene Keys and Channin Becker- had different experiences than Hirschhorn and Barak. Because both grew up attending Reform synagogues after women were allowed into the cantorate, they knew that being a cantor was something they could do.

"It didn't even occur to me that women couldn't do it," says Becker, the cantor at Temple Isiah in Lafayette since 1998.

When she was a young girl, Becker first considered a career in musical theater. But eventually she decided she wanted a job where she could combine her love of music with her love of Judaism.

A big influence was her fourth-grade Hebrew school teacher. Learning that Becker played guitar, the teacher let the youngster lead services in her class. Later, the woman became the school principal and hired Becker as a music teacher - a part-time job that Becker held all through high school.

"That was a particularly wonderful experience, and it was the first experience that made becoming a cantor possible for me," says the 28-year-old Oakland resident.

Keys, the cantor at Temple Sinai in Oakland, grew up in Los Angeles and attended a Jewish day school from third through ninth grade. Loving to sing and very involved in temple life, she participated in a Junior Cantors Camp, designed for kids interested in leading services.

"From the time I had my bat mitzvah, I knew (being a cantor) is what I wanted to do," says the 31-year-old Emeryville resident.

She attended the Stephen J. Wise synagogue in Los Angeles and the longtime cantor there, Nathan Lam, took Keys under his wing, giving her voice lessons and training her to enter the profession.

"He's my mentor and the reason I'm a cantor today," says Keys.

Barak was a successful opera singer before she became a cantor. She moved to Israel as a young woman and sang for the national opera company there.

She returned to the United States a few years later. While she continued to do some opera singing, Barak also became a soprano in a quartet that backed up the cantor at a Reform synagogue in New York City.

She enjoyed that singing so much, she decided to become a cantor.

Becker, Keys and Barak all attended Hebrew Union College's cantorial school in New York City, where they earned master's degrees in Sacred Music. It's a four-year program that includes a year of study in Jerusalem.

Hirschhorn's path to the cantorate was different. She learned to speak Hebrew fluently, lived in Israel for a couple of years, came back to the United States and taught music at Jewish religious schools, and eventually won a job at Beth Sholom as a cantorial soloist.

In 1996, she passed a test administered by the Cantors Assembly - the cantorial arm of the Conservative movement - which gave her official status as a cantor in the movement.

Hirschhorn, 53, is also the founder of Vocolot, a women's a capella group that performs music rooted in Jewish traditions but that also includes elements of jazz, folk, improvisation and other musical forms. The six-member group performs throughout the country and will be performing Aug. 26 at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco.

The cantors all describe the experience of singing in synagogue as very powerful and poignant. They stress that such singing is not an individual performance, but rather a beautiful way of sharing the experience of prayer with the people in their congregations.

Aside from helping to lead services, cantors counsel congregants, train young boys and girls studying for their bar or bat mitzvahs, work with the temple choirs, teach music, visit congregants who are ill, and sing at various life cycle events, such as weddings and funerals.

Hirschhorn had the thrill of singing at her daughter's bat mitzvah last year.

Cantors are busiest during the High Holidays - Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hirschhorn says the abundance of singing and prayer during the long holiday services is both demanding and deeply rewarding for cantors.

"It's very intense. You empty yourself out - you just keep singing and singing and singing," says the cantor, who also helped to start Kehilla, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Berkeley.

At the temples where Barak, Keys and Becker all work, there are both men and women rabbis. This means there are times where the services are being led by a woman rabbi and a woman cantor.

"One of the nice things (about that)," says Becker, "is it does let younger Jewish girls know that they can be leaders in the Jewish community - that it's open to them in lots of different ways."

You can call Paul Sterman at (925) 416-4842 or e-mail psterman@angnewspapers.com.

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