As Yom Kippur approaches, for the first time in the history of Conservative Judaism women cantors have something new to sing about--recognition as equals by their male counterparts.
On Aug. 30, the executive council branch of the Cantors Assembly voted, after three years of failed attempts, to accept women into its ranks. Affiliation into the New York-based assembly is one of the highest honors a Conservative Jewish cantor can obtain. There are 400 members nationally.
"We applauded the women when they came to our door, but then we shut the door in their faces," Cantor Samuel Rosenbaum, executive vice president of the assembly in New York, said. "We delayed too long in accepting women as colleagues. But tradition has changed."
In the past, the acceptance of women cantors required a two-thirds majority by the assembly's executive council, explained its president, Cantor Robert Kieval. The women finally won the vote when the council concluded, based on legal advice, that women could be recognized with a simple majority vote, he said.
"Isn't it wonderful? Isn't it great?" Linda Rich, cantor of Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, said. Rich is one of an estimated 12 female cantors in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley.
She was also the first female cantor in a Conservative synagogue anywhere in America, a distinction Rich obtained in 1977 when she accepted a brief cantorial position at Temple Israel in Orange County's Leisure World before moving onto the Kehillath Israel in Pacific Palisades.
Her decision to join this ancient profession isn't surprising for someone with her religious credentials. Not only were her great-grandfather and grandfather cantors, but her father and two brothers are carrying on the tradition as well. The cantor, an important adjunct to the synagogue's rabbi, is responsible for setting the prayers to music, rendering them more poignant and appealing to the congregations.
Rich, now in her 30s, moved to Los Angeles after winning a scholarship with the Civic Light Opera in her early 20s. She soon discovered that "with my earthy, Judy Garland sound, I could sing like a cantor of old in Eastern Europe." The discovery stirred her spiritual emotions, and Rich opted to follow in the footsteps of her male relatives.
As Rich practiced for High Holy Day services, her 3-month-old daughter, Rachel, cooed nearby. "The sound of my voice makes her sing too," Rich said.
Although Rich said she always knew women would eventually be full members of the Cantors Assembly, she agreed that it is still too new for everyone to accept. Unlike her pulpit in the Palisades, where she was overwhelmingly popular, Rich said it may take time for some Conservative synagogues to adjust to female cantors.
"The cantor before me was also a woman," Rich said about the Palisades temple. "She had been there for four years. The little ones in the congregation had never known a male cantor. One day at a synagogue reception a little girl asked her mother, 'Mommy, are there any men cantors?' " Rich is also a member of the Women Cantors Network, a New York-based organization formed in the late 1970s to strengthen the bonds between female cantors. The group of about 40 women cantors is not officially sanctioned by the Cantors Assembly.
Like Rich, Laurie Rimland, is well regarded within her congregation, Temple Emanuel in Burbank. In fact, she is known simply as "Cantor Laurie." With an 18-month-old daughter and a baby due in December, Rimland said she could not sing in the synagogue if it were not for the support of her husband, Alan Bonn.
"Alan has always been very interested in my career, and we have made it a family thing," she said.
Rimland attributes her initial interest in the synagogue to her parents' divorce when she was in elementary school. "The center of my life then was the synagogue. But I would have been bored out of my mind if it had not been for the music," she said, recalling the first time she heard her mentor, Cantor Alan Michelson, at a North Hollywood temple.
"The temple kept me straight, and my mother never had to worry about my joining the Moonies," recalled Rimland. "I came from a broken home, and a kid who doesn't have a family bosom can go either way. I was an impressionable personality, and I knew kids who joined cults and had to be deprogrammed."
Another female cantor is Judy Fox. She and her husband, Herschel, are the only married cantor-couple in the country, Rich said. On a typical Friday night, Herschel chanted at Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, while Judy led her congregation at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts on the West Side.
When the couple are not singing for their congregations, they are often on the road, performing non-religious music at Jewish community centers through the country.
"We travel the United States and Canada singing pop and show tunes, and I might do some comedy in Yiddish," said Judy, who is in her 30s.
Born in Budapest, Judy's parents were survivors of the Holocaust. Like many other Orthodox Jews before them, her parents lost faith in religion after the war, Judy said. "In a way, I've gone back to Judaism because I feel a certain identity and spirituality with what I am doing. It's a fantastic, creative outlet," she said about returning to her Jewish roots in her early adulthood.
"She has a beautiful voice and the right spirit," Rabbi David Baron of the Synagogue of the Performing Arts said.
Women cantors have joined Conservative congregations only within the last five years. Some Reform Jewish congregations around the country allowed female cantors as early as 20 years ago, said Rich, who added that Orthodox synagogues offer no opportunities for women since they are separated from men in services.
The assembly's vote to accept women into its membership will result in professional recognition as well as increased financial benefits, some of the women cantors said. Job opportunities will become more readily available nationwide. One male cantor who foresees "full equality" for female cantors said opportunities in larger synagogues, with as many as 700 families or more, should now open up for women. Assembly members also receive retirement and medical plans.
Temples generally pay female cantors less than males. While Fox said she knows cantors who earn $40,000 to $60,000, most women with the same experience would receive as much as $20,000 less for the same position.
The next Cantors Assembly meeting is set for December. At that time, said Rosenbaum, the council will vote to accept individual women on the basis of proficiency, not gender. Qualified female candidates will most likely be cantorial graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York or of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, the only institutions which offer cantorial degrees in the nation, he said. Other women may be accepted on the basis of their experience alone, he added.
The addition of female cantors is needed, Cantor Natham Lam of the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles said. Over the past two years, about 60 cantorial posts were available in the United States, but temples could only fill 15 of them, he said, because there's a national shortage of cantors. Female membership in the assembly may help the women attain other cantor positions, he added.
"Just as the left wing and the right wing have to learn to live together, we have to welcome our women as colleagues," Rosenbaum said. "After all, this is from Isaiah: 'Eat you every one of his vine and every one of his fig tree.' That did not mean only half the population."