Women Cantors Network Celebrates 30 Years
From far and wide – from Germany and Iowa and Texas - 100 women cantors gathered mid-June at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Women Cantors Network. In prayer and song, in workshop and lecture, the members learned, sang and worshipped together over the course of three and a half days.
“Thirty years ago I could not have imagined an annual gathering of 100 women from across the country - this year even from Hamburg, Germany,” said WCN founder Deborah Katchko-Gray. “Thirty years ago we were twelve women with lots of questions and energy - today with close to 250 members, we have support, friendship and opportunities through our email listserve and conferences for Jewish learning, spiritual growth and sharing music.”
They’ve come a long way, baby! Although women have only been invested as cantors since the mid-70’s, they now make up a large part of the graduating class from the conservative and reform seminaries. And that doesn’t take into account the many women cantorial soloists and prayer leaders across the country who were also in attendance at the conference. The remarkable growth and acceptance of women cantors caught the eye of Rachel Adelstein, a doctoral candidate from University of Chicago, who came to interview the women for her dissertation.
“Literally in one lifetime -- mine -- women cantors have gone from being a rarity to being so common that I was well into my thirties before I even met a male cantor,” said Adelstein. “Cantor Sheila Cline, whom I met at the conference, was the second female graduate of Hebrew Union College’s School of Sacred Music. She graduated the same year that I was born!”
Others came for support from the “veteran” members, such as Cantorial Soloist Jane Roman Pitt from Fairfield, Iowa. “I had to gather my courage to come as I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “But I was met by warmth and a willingness to share the knowledge, the wisdom and the music of one hundred women who became like one as the days went on. In fact, the last service was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life.”
The morning and evening services were a powerful experience for the cantors on the bimah (stage) as well as those in the congregation, according to many. The prayer leaders incorporated their own compositions along with those of contemporary singer-songwriters. Katchko-Gray sang prayers to melodies penned by her grandfather, the legendary cantor/composer Adolph Katchko. A round by Louise Treitman, Associate Dean of Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music in Newton, drew beautiful, full harmonies from the congregation, who willingly lifted their voices throughout the service. One cantor jumped up from her seat to add the joyful sound of her clarinet to the music-making, and at least half the room rose to dance a spontaneous hora during a lively part of the service.
“What a joy it was hosting this spirited group,” said Temple Beth Avodah Cantorial Soloist Susan Glickman, conference co-chair with Cantor Robin Sparr-Rothman. “Our congregants commented on the extraordinary experience of praying among the voices of 100 cantors with their rich, spontaneous harmonies.”
There were song-shares, a Power Sing led by Nick Page of Mystic Chorale and an opening concert by celebrated singer/songwriter Julie Silver who returned to her hometown from California. And there were plenty of learning opportunities in workshops on Leading Teen Choirs and Congregational Choirs, Nusach (traditional chant), Engaging the Unaffiliated Jewish Community, Yoga Shalom, Female Prophets and others; a Torah study with Rabbi Eiduson of Temple Beth Avodah; Keynote speeches by Tufts professor Jeffrey Summit on engaging today’s congregations through chanting Torah and by Cantor Gaston Bogomolni of Temple Aliyah in Needham on the Argentinean Synagogue Experience.