Scattered sheet music covers the coffee table in Cantor Rachelle Nelson’s office at Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest. A chart on a small white board organizes the tasks left to do in preparation for the High Holy Days.
Step into Cantor Julie Jacobs’ office in Miami’s Beth David Congregation and the scene is similar: sheet music of Beth Schafer’s In This House is scattered on Jacobs’ desk. Soon, the high-pitched voices of about 20 children in the temple’s youth choir singing In This House fill the synagogue’s hallways.
Farther south in Homestead, Eilat Schmalbach rehearses Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers accompanied by a pianist.
And in Coral Gables, Cantorial Soloist Jodi Rozental and the temple’s choir go through a six-and-a-half-hour rehearsal to prepare for the High Holy Days.
Across South Florida, cantors and cantorial soloists are getting ready to sing prayer songs during the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at their synagogues.
“There just is an enormous amount of music for the High Holy Days,” said Rozental. “We go through it page by page, song by song. We rehearse it. We tweak it. We perfect it.”
Rosh Hashana, or New Year, is followed by ten days of inner reflection on how to be a better person in the coming year. The High Holy Days end on Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, when many fast and attend the evening Kol Nidre service.
Cantors and cantorial soloists are the musical directors at synagogues. They manage the choir and sing year-round services as well as at events such as bat and bar mitzvah, weddings and funerals. They are also responsible for the musical programs at a temple – from arranging string quartets for the Kol Nidre to reaching out to youths in congregation and developing their musical abilities.
“Cantors should see their work as a calling,” said Nelson. “We are the liturgists. At least 80 percent of Jewish prayer is sung. Someone has to be well-trained and have a beautiful voice.”
Cantors earn the title by going to a school that invests, or ordains, cantors. Cantorial soloists carry out the same duties as a cantor but they have not been officially ordained.
Here are the stories of six cantors and cantorial soloists who are preparing for the upcoming High Holy Days:
A community role model
When Temple Beth Am Cantor Rachelle Nelson would go to Publix with her daughters, the three played a game: The children tested their mother on how many people she knows from the congregation and how many of their names she would remember.
“A lot of people got called ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’,” said Nelson, 56.
To be a cantor means to be responsible for all the musical aspects of the temple. But it also means more than that, said Nelson.
“When we walk outside the home, we are also a role model in the community. We have to live by the highest standards.”
Nelson, of Palmetto Bay, was invested as a cantor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City and at the time served as the cantor at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, making her the first female cantor in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Her musical background – she holds a bachelor’s in music education and theory composition from the University of Miami – has also led her to write music and release three CDs. Some churches use her music in their services as well.