Temple Sinai to honor the voices of women


PLEASE NOTE: This event has been cancelled. Organizers hope to schedule it at a later date.

In a recent edition of Reform Judaism magazine, an article about the first ordained woman rabbi movingly stated: “I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Regina Jonas to choose this path [the rabbinate] in the 1930s in Berlin, having never seen anyone who looked like her on the pulpit.”  

For congregants, as well as clergy, it is often astonishing to realize that the phenomenon of women on the bimah is still fairly recent – especially since today, almost 65% of students at the major non-Orthodox rabbinic seminaries are women.

Even in Orthodoxy, change is afoot. In 2015, Lila Kagedan was ordained at Yeshivat Maharat, a New York City seminary providing “an official path for gaining the skills, training, and certification needed to become spiritual leaders within the Modern Orthodox community.” Kagedan is no longer the only Orthodox woman rabbi – today, there are 33. 

On our home turf, Temple Beth Sholom, in Providence, recently contracted Avital Engelberg, another Yeshivat Maharat alumna, as director of spiritual engagement. Unlike Kagedan, Engelbert will not take the pulpit, but will assist with pastoral care and education. She has also elected to use the feminized title “rabbanit,” as opposed to Kagedan’s gender-neutral  “rabbi.”

No Jewish law explicitly bars women from the rabbinate. In contrast, ironically, there has been a clear prohibition against women cantors. According to biblical or rabbinic law, kol isha (the voice of a woman) is considered ervah (erotic) and men are absolutely forbidden from listening lest they be seduced into unclean thoughts.

It was only in the 1970s that Barbara Ostfeld integrated the male-only School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, and was ordained as a cantor in 1975.

“Worship will never again idle in bass clef,” she said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with bass clef, it’s just that there’s a whole world of human voice above it.” 

Today, one is more likely to encounter a woman cantor than a male cantor, as illustrated by a joke often repeated by female cantors: A child is visiting a new temple, where the service is being led by a male cantor. He tugs at his mother’s sleeve and says in disbelief: “Ima, boys can be cantors, too?”

In fact, 60% of all American Reform cantors are women, while the Conservative movement, which ordained its first women cantors in 1987, is also increasing its numbers.

March is Women’s History month, making it the perfect time to honor and remember the contributions of women thinkers, doers, scientists and artists of all types. Over the weekend of March 20-22, that is exactly what Temple Sinai, at 30 Hagen Ave., in Cranston, is doing. Our Shabbat service at 7:30 p.m. on March 20 will feature the work of women composers, sung by the cantor and community chorus, Shireinu, and on March 22 at 4 p.m., we will present “Kol Isha: Women Cantors Sing Jewish Music, Then to Now.”  Presenting music from the bimah to Broadway, the concert will feature the voices of Cantors Judy Seplowin (Beth-El, Providence), Debbie Katchko-Gray (Shir Shalom, Ridgefield, Connecticut), Tami Cherdack (Kol Haverim, Glastonbury, Connecticut) and Sinai’s own Deborah Johnson. 

Both events are free and the public is welcome.

DEBORAH JOHNSON is the cantor at Temple Sinai, in Cranston.

Temple Sinai, music