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Orange County Jewish Life Archive,  July 2005
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female cantors - Orange County Jewish Life

Soprano Voices
By Florence Dann

Female cantors are making their mark.

  For centuries, the cantor, or hazzan, the musical leader of the synagogue, has always been a man, but in the last 30 years in America, the number of female cantors has soared. In Reform congregations 75 percent of all graduates from Hebrew Union College ‘s (HUC) School of Sacred Music in New York are women. Worldwide, more than half are women. In the Conservative movement, the number of female cantors has grown from zero to 30 percent in the last 20 years.

   This evolution is, of course, related to the process of bringing women into an equal role. However, like many institutions, the presence of women in roles of authority came slowly and is still in the process of gaining universal acceptance.

   The first female cantor was invested in 1975 by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s seminary. Subsequently, more than 150 women have been invested as cantors. Even after the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement ordained women cantors in 1986, the professional organization did not admit them until a couple of years later.

   Today, all branches of Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox) have training programs for cantors, and the first three ordain women. In Orange County all three are represented: Shula Kalir at Temple Beth El of Aliso Viejo, Linda Ecker at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, Marcia Tilchin at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, Shannon McGrady Bane at Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, Ruti Braier at University Synagogue in Irvine, and Nancy Linder at Temple Beth David in Fountain Valley. These cantors/cantorial soloists not only lead services and educational programs; they also preside at life-cycle events, such as weddings and funerals, and within the larger community of Orange County as well.

   What is so interesting about these women is that each came to the cantorate from a different background. While some knew what they wanted early in their lives, others found their way from a pop, rock, and jazz background. One even found her way from a non-Jewish background. What they have in common is that they saw the opportunity to merge their love of music with the heritage and tradition that resonated deeply within them. The fact that they were women was not an obstacle.

   Cantor Linda Ecker, the first female to serve as cantorial soloist in Orange County, has been with Congregation B’nai Tzedek since its inception in 1976. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Ecker moved to California in 1959 and grew up at Temple Beth Emet in Anaheim where she became a student of Cantor Phillip Moddel. She sang in his choir, walked with him to services and became enamored with the cantorate. Although women were not yet allowed active participation on the pulpit, it was a direction she always hoped to travel. She earned a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s degree from Cal State Fullerton. When the cantorate opened to women, she was already working at Congregation B'nai Tzedek as a B'nai Mitzvah counselor and soloist. Ecker received her cantorial training through the University of Judaism and was hired as a cantor at the synagogue. She moved forward, receiving her invested certification from Hebrew Union College, School of Sacred Music, and the American Conference of Cantors.

   The program Ecker completed was established by the Reform Movement for those who sought to become cantors but could not travel to New York. Candidates must meet certain criteria as to musical ability and knowledge to become associates. They are then given a syllabus and a limited time to complete the course of study, after which time they take exams in New York.

   Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane was certified through the same program. “It took me eleven years to achieve my goal of becoming a cantor,” said McGrady Bane. “Along the way, I earned a masters’ in Judaic studies from Hebrew Union College, gave birth to my son Zachary (6 _) and daughter Eliana (4), and continued serving my congregation.”

   “When people hear my name, “ said McGrady Bane, “they often have a quizzical look on their faces. A native of California, she was not born Jewish, but was drawn to Judaism during college. In her senior year she became more involved in the Jewish community. After graduating with a degree in religion and Hispanic studies from Scripps College in Claremont in 1985 and spending another year living Jewishly that she formally converted. Her love of music matched her love of Judaism and she felt that serving as a cantorial soloist would allow her to use her talents in music to touch people in a way that words alone cannot. “When I lead services,” said McGrady Bane, “I feel something very special, and people respond to that.”

   Both Cantors Ecker and McGrady Bane have been very involved in the American Conference of Cantors serving in leadership roles and involved with the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).

   When the Conservative movement opened its seminary doors to women, Hazzan Marcia Tilchin was one of many young Conservative females who seized the opportunity. “It has taken close to two decades of women serving as clergy for them to achieve a status that will allow them to serve larger Conservative congregations as senior rabbi,” said Tilchin. “Some female hazzanim, however, because of the need , moved into larger congregations more quickly.”

   Prior to joining Congregation B’nai Israel as its full time hazzan, Tilchin served as hazzan of Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, New York.

   Tilchin attended the Jewish Theological Seminary (the Conservative Seminary) and received her Masters’ of Sacred Music and Diploma of Hazzan in May 2000. Moving from New York to Tustin, she immediately assumed full time responsibilities as hazzan. While Rabbi Elie Spitz is on sabbatical, is also serving as rabbi.

   While at the seminary, Tilchin was assistant to the dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School. She was also the editor and musical consultant for four Remember Us Unto Life High Holiday specials on public radio featuring interviews between Chancellor Ismar Schorsch and radio personality Larry Josephson.

Shannon McGrady Bane Linda Ecker
Nancy Linder Ruti Braier
Shula Kalir-Merton  

Tilchin is particularly proud to have been founding director of the award-winning Kesher program at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. Kesher provides a unique camping opportunity for Jewish deaf children and their families. In March of this year, Tilchin was featured in Adath Jeshurun’s annual Music Festival, in Louisville Kentucky.

   For the last three years, Tilchin has continued her studies in the rabbinical program at JTS. "As a teacher, there is no greater privilege than to be part of a community that wants to learn, and B'nai Israel has always made learning a priority," said Tilchin, who plans on resuming her rabbinical studies in the near future.

   Two women, Ruti Braier, who has served at University Synagogue (the Reconstructionist Synagogue) in Irvine since 1995, and Nancy Linder at Reform Temple Beth David in Westminster since August 2000, come from rich Jewish musical backgrounds that are somewhat different than their colleagues’.

   Braier was born in Argentina, lived in Israel, and moved to Southern California in 1982. Her grandfather had been a cantor in Vilna, Lithuania. He and his family were saved from the holocaust by one brother’s lottery winnings that brought them to a small Jewish town in Argentina. ”I adored my grandfather,” said Braier. “He was my first and main mentor and taught me the music and liturgy.” When she and her family made aliya to Israel, Braier became fluent in Hebrew and strengthened her foundation.

   She toured as the lead singer of two Jewish musical groups, Shachar and Manginot Bashira, singing pop and rock in Hebrew and was a finalist on television's International Star Search. Braier holds a degree in Judaica from Midrasha L'Morim, a university affiliated with Tel Aviv University, a degree in music from the Conservatorio de Musica in Buenos Aires, and a degree in music therapy from the University of El Salvador, also in Buenos Aires. Over the years she has studied with a number of well-known cantors in Los Angeles including Cantors Samuel Fordis, Nathan Lam, and Meyer Finklestein.

   “My whole life has been devoted to studying, writing and teaching music to children,” said Braier. For more than twenty years, she has served at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles as school music director and leader of family services, and, for several years, was Cantor for High Holiday services at Congregation Beth Or. She came to University Synagogue in 1995 and since that time has been serving double duty, at both Sinai Temple and University. Over the years she has helped establish numerous children’s and teen choirs, including the University Synagogue Children's Choir and the Young Cantors Ensemble. Her diverse background has allowed her to integrate multiple musical styles from classical Hebrew liturgy to modern Israeli music to American pop, folk, and jazz. Braier can be heard on her CD, Shabbat Alive, which represents the “Shabbat Alive” service she developed for University Synagogue.

   “Even Jews who have a limited Jewish education,” said Braier, “still remember the songs and prayers they learn in the youth. The music that we learned as children remains a comforting and profound part of our lives.”

   Musical education has been a primary force in Nancy Linder’s life. Prior to joining the clergy at Temple Beth David, she was an accomplished choir director, music teacher, and musical theater performer. She has performed for several years as a soloist and musical director at the Simcha Fest at the Orange County Jewish Community Center, and at fund-raisers at many synagogues. She has also sung frequently with the South Coast Simcha Band. Born and raised in Tallahassee, Florida, she says she could sing before she could talk.

   “I discovered my love for singing and performing when I joined the school choir and was later selected for starring roles in various school productions,” said Linder. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Florida State University, with a degree in music performance and theater and received her master's degree from Azusa Pacific University. While at Florida State, Linder was selected as one of two jazz soloists for Sarah Vaughan's master class and was accompanied by Marcus Roberts during a 1981 performance. “But there was always the tradition,” says Linder. And while she taught elementary school music for 15 years, it was the opportunity to bring her talent to the sacred music that led Linder to become a cantorial soloist. Her first album, My Favorite Hebrew Songs, grew out of a desire to record something special for her father. Later, in 1999, she released her second album, Songs of the Jewish Spirit.
Having a father as a rabbi meant Shula Kalir-Merton was well versed in liturgy. Born and raised in Jerusalem, Israel, where she received her early education, she is the daughter of the late Rabbi Joseph Kalir and Hilda Kalir, holocaust survivors from Germany. She received her secondary education in Goteborg, Sweden, where her father held a rabbinical pulpit.

   After attending Boston University and the Hebrew Teachers College, Kalir-Merton moved to the west coast to work in the field of Jewish Education and exercising her passion for Jewish music by performing as a vocalist on the local Jewish scene, including several tours of college campuses in the western states and concerts throughout Europe.

   Upon the suggestion of Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El, who heard her perform, Kalir-Merton entered the cantorate, studying under Cantor William Sharlin in Los Angeles. She has served Temple Beth El with Rabbi Allen Krause for the past eighteen years. Aside from her many teaching duties both to adults and children, she has had the pleasure of introducing several world premiere Shabbat services by local composers including Ami Aloni, Meir Finklestein, and Gordon Lustig. She is planning to introduce another world premiere by a Southern California Jewish composer in 2005.

   The diversity in these women’s backgrounds is a testament to the many paths women can now take to achieve a fulfilling life in the spiritual community. Though strict interpretation of Mishna denies women a place on the bima, it is becoming more commonplace to see just that. Where once a woman’s voice was considered a distraction from the solemnity of prayer, women’s voices are now presenting the liturgy in new and rich ways that people find enriching and enjoyable.

   “A female on the bima also provides a positive image for young congregants,” said Braier. “Young women can see themselves presented from the pulpit and understand on a very deep level that they can also have a significant role in Jewish life.”

   Ecker recognizes the accomplishments that women have made not only in the cantorate, but also in the rabbinate. “No longer are they viewed as women clergy, but simply clergy. There is a point where the gender of the position is no longer a consideration, but the talents and credentials are.”

   Ecker acknowledges that there is a high percentage of women entering the Reform cantorate. In fact, the incoming class for Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music is all female. “The cantorate itself is in a transition period, growing and making a difference,” said Ecker. “It's an exciting time to be a cantor!”

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