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South Florida cantors get ready for High Holy Days

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.

Nelson began composing at the age of 6. Her style is influenced by classical and Broadway music as well as her upbringing with a grandmother with a grandmother who spoke Yiddish and mother who played the piano.

“All of that went into my ears and it came out with me creating my own sound,” she said. “My home was filled with not just the music of our culture. It was filled with Jewish books. My mother cooked Jewishly. My parents made it a very beautiful environment for me to grow up in.”

At Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest she accompanies herself on the piano when she sings during services. Aside from fulfilling her cantorial duties of directing the music life in the temple and singing at bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals and weddings, she also writes arrangements for younger members of the congregation who play the clarinet, the saxophone, the guitar and base.

“If you can get young people involved and find their niche, you have an opportunity to make their Judaism come to life,” said Nelson.

Singing from the heart

Inside a Homestead home with light purple walls, Millie Draizar’s fingers bounce on her piano and Eilat Schmalbach sings the Rosh Hashana prayer Avinu Malkeinu in a mezzo-soprano voice.

“When you sing you have to sing from the heart,” said Schmalbach, 59. “You have to be able to convey a message.”

For the past 16 years, she has been the cantorial soloist at Temple Hatikvah in Homestead. It all began after Hurricane Andrew, when a large part of the congregation moved away from South Florida as their homes were destroyed. The temple did not have a rabbi or a cantor – just lay people who led services as guests.

So Schmalbach took over.

“I became the leading person in speaking and in singing because I was the only one who could speak Hebrew,” she said.

Born in Israel, Schmalbach, who now lives in Redland, was never ordained a cantor but always sang in her synagogue’s choir.

She and Draizar usually rehearse only before a service. But that changes weeks before the High Holy Days.

“I’ve been here on Thursday. I am here today. And next week, we will have to meet more because it will be only one week from the High Holy Days,” she said.

Come the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, she will be clad in white as is traditional for cantors during those holidays. Schmalbach said the clothing completes an experience that appeals to many of the congregants’ senses: sight as there is a lot of white in the temple symbolizing purity, hearing as they listen to the prayer songs, and taste as it is traditional for the first meal during the High Holy Days to be apples with honey to ensure a sweet new year.

“They taste the difference. They hear it,” she said. “And they see it because everything is more white. More pure.”

She says that two qualities make a good cantor: the proper education and “personality.” The latter, she said, is what she uses to convey the message of the prayer songs that are sung in Hebrew.

“Most people do not understand Hebrew,” said Schmalbach. “But if you can convey through music, through your voice, then you’ve done your job.”

‘All ordained in a special way’

At an early morning weekday service, Rabbi and Cantor Marc Philippe reads and sings from the Torah, a tefillin wrapped around his left hand and forehead, and a talit draped over his back and shoulders. He faces the ark and at the end of the service he blows the shofar.

“Things happen in life. It was all ordained in a special way,” said Philippe, 48, of becoming a cantor.

After obtaining a master’s in flute, chamber music and conducting from the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, he started touring as a musician. Then an audition came up for Jewish liturgical music soloists and he tried it.

“As I was singing with that, I thought ‘This is pretty neat’,” said Philippe, of Miami Beach.

He now serves in his third year as the cantor of Miami Beach Temple Emanu-El of Greater Miami, where he has used his musical background to organize an arrangement by a string quartet for the Kol Nidre evening service on Yom Kippur.

He was invested in to become a cantor at the Consistoire Israelite de Paris and studied to become a rabbi at Yeshiva Toras Mishe in Israel.

He originally sang as a tenor, but as a cantor he tries to sing in the baritone range so that congregants may join in the prayer songs.

“I try to encourage people to join in,” said Philippe.

Young at heart

At 8-years-old, Jodi Rozental was the youngest vocalist in the Temple Sinai youth choir – usually children were not allowed to join until the age of 9.

At 13-years-old, she was perhaps the youngest congregation member to step behind the bimah and lead entire services for three months when the official cantor was away. First she led services by singing a cappella. Later on she started playing the guitar.

“It was for me as if the music was in my blood,” said Rozental, now 46 and the cantorial soloist at Coral Gables Temple Judea. “It called to my soul. I learned every song. Ever word. It was almost like I was reliving it.”

Rozental’s life training as a cantorial soloist started at a young age and continued throughout the years. As a University of Florida student she was one of the founders of the Reform Jewish Student Organization and led High Holy Days services for students. Now, as cantorial soloist at Temple Judea she sings as a mezzo-soprano during services, directs the all-volunteer-adult choir Kol Malachim, or Voice of the Angels, and the temple’s The Rhythm & Jews Band. She composed her own music to a traditional Shabbat prayer, L’Chah Dodi.

Recently, leaders of services like Rozental and the rabbis clad themselves in sparkly black outfits and treated their congregation to a Glee-inspired Broadway show, The Temple Judea Episode, for their annual fundraiser.

“We get down and dirty,” said Rozental, of Fort Lauderdale. “We show our human side. It was different for our congregants to see us because they always see us in a more serious role.”

Like many other modern-day cantors, Rozental was not officially ordained as she did not go to school to become a cantor.

“I have something that can’t be taught in school,” she said of her voice and connection to the music she felt ever since she started attending Temple Sinai as a child.

“I was just immersed,” said Rozental. “If I wasn’t at home, my parents knew they could find me at temple.”

A team effort

Michael Henry may be the one standing on the bimah, a raised platform at the front of the temple. He may be the one leading the prayers sung at Temple Beth Or’s services. And he may be the one who sings the tenor parts of prayer songs.

But he does not consider himself a cantorial soloist.

“It’s not about having someone be the star voice,” said Henry, 60. “The people who come here like to enjoy themselves and get involved in temple life. We do everything more as a community than as an individual.”

That includes singing all the prayers together as a choir, rather than Henry singing solo as it is more traditionally seen in synagogues.

Henry, of Kendall, went from being a congregant at Temple Beth Or to serving as a volunteer-prayer-songs leader in part thanks to his musical background – he studied at the University of Miami Frost School of Music and played in jazz bands.

“Music is such an important thing to this temple. It just seemed like the right thing to do and take over where the last person left off,” he said.

While he stopped his musical career in the 1970s to open a floor-covering business, he continues to compose melodies for the congregation often taking the words of a traditional prayer and writing a new melody.

“I open up the prayer book and there’s like a rhythm to the words and sometimes it just turns into a song. And sometimes I’ll be driving down the road and music will start popping into my head,” said Henry, who plays an electric guitar when he leads the prayer sings and is often accompanied by a djembe player.

At a recent rehearsal with the choir at the Kendall temple, he led them into singing B’Rosh Hashanah. While it is traditionally sung to a “somber” tune, Henry re-wrote it to a livelier melody.

“It’s fun learning new arrangements,” said choir-member Phyllis Winnick, 71. “The way he works with the choir is very effective.”

Added Henry: “Without getting too crazy, we try to interject some things that are a little bit more refreshing and uplifting.”

Not a job, but a life

Like many other cantors and cantorial soloists, Beth David Congregation Cantor Julie Jacobs serves as a counselor to the congregants.

At a recent hospital visit, a congregation member asked Jacobs to sing for her.

“Mostly people ask me to sing. Sometimes it is hard to understand how much it means to them,” said Jacobs, 38. “It’s humbling to help them with their spirits or to give hem someone to talk to.”

Sometimes entire days go by with her counseling people.

“Children come to me. Parents come to me. The staff here, too,” said Jacobs, of Coral Gables.

She chose to become a cantor as a way to keep connected with her Jewish roots and raise her family in the Jewish culture.

“I love the history, I love the ethics of the Jewish way,” she said. “I’ve really also invested my family into the synagogue life.”

Indeed, Jacobs has Mondays off and often ends up spending the day at the temple. Her 12-year-old son is part of the temple’s children’s choir she directs. And as a cantor at Beth David Congregation she has worked to “liven up” the service music. Recently she introduced a Latin-music-inspired band, Shabbat Passion, to play monthly at Friday night services.

“That was very shocking for the congregation at first,” she said. “It’s everybody’s favorite service now.”

Hannah Mayer is an 11-year-old congregant who takes weekly one-on-one bat mitzvah lessons with Jacobs.

“She is very fun. But she is also sometimes strict, which is good, too,” said Mayer, of Miami Beach.

Added Jacobs: “I think my job isn’t a job. It’s a life.”