Celebrating 40 years of the Women Cantors’ Network - opinion

When I think about 40 years of the Women Cantors’ Network (WCN), I think about the early days and how vastly different things are now.

 WOMEN CANTORS gather at a recent conference in Oklahoma City (photo credit: DEBORAH KATCHKO-GRAY)
WOMEN CANTORS gather at a recent conference in Oklahoma City
(photo credit: DEBORAH KATCHKO-GRAY)

Forty years is a significant amount of time in any circumstance, and in the life of an organization, it gives us a chance to reflect. I thought about what 40 years means in Biblical tradition and was surprised how many references to 40 there are. I knew Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights receiving God’s laws.

Spies were sent for 40 days to check out the Promised Land; the prophet Jonah warned Ninveh for 40 days to behave, and the generation leaving Egypt had to wait 40 years before a new generation was allowed to enter the Promised Land of Israel. That’s what Biblestudy.org had to say about 40. 

When I think about 40 years of the Women Cantors’ Network (WCN), I think about the early days and how vastly different things are now. It is like a totally new generation is in place, and the changes are seen as natural, and the way things should be. I am amazed at how 40 years has changed the character and behavior of clergy, and for those who haven’t figured it out, there are consequences to the sexual and abusive behavior once accepted as the norm

I remember clearly the insane comments thrown at me as I began my journey as a Conservative woman cantor in 1981, after leading services since 1976 in Boston in area Conservative shuls. 

“What will they think of next? Topless cantors?” “Breastfeeding on the bima?” “Anything to bring in the congregation I suppose” “What will you do if you have children?” “I guess they are tossing out kashrut, too!”

It was if this was a freak show at a circus – something exotic to gawk at, and ponder how will we even look at, no less hear a woman cantor. If this wasn’t bad enough, there was the isolation from any colleagues in my community, and one who actively worked against me; keeping me from any community concerts and protesting my admission to the Cantors Assembly, after I passed the rigorous exam.

The irony was, I was refused admission based on one complaint that my position wasn’t “full time” when the membership chair encouraged me to apply because my ” part-time” job was more than many male cantors’ full-time jobs at the time. It was a clear example of sexism at the time, that would not be tolerated now. 

I would say these experiences made me bolder, a bit angry and fearless. What did I have to lose? I began an organization totally open to any woman cantor (and any male who wanted to join) regardless of certification or degree. It was a totally radical idea that we can learn from everyone; there may be someone with no formal training from whom I can learn.

My goal was to open the doors wide and share any knowledge, music, ideas with anyone who loves being a cantor, or who wanted to be a cantor. It should be a safe space of music, spirit and learning. It turns out, it’s not such a radical idea, but in 1982 it was seen as heresy.

I was belittled and demonized for many years for “legitimizing illegitimate cantors.” As the years went by, people saw that talent and creativity have no boundaries; that we can evolve and become cantors in more than a few ways. 

I always said that not everyone can go to a seminary for five years, including a year in Israel if you have a family or a spouse with a job with boundaries. Why punish someone because they need an alternative? It turns out there are plenty of alternatives today. 

It took a few decades but today there are several paths to getting certified as a cantor. In 1981 that was not the case. Perhaps I was a bit bold when I proudly told any reporter who asked me about my new position as the second full-time Conservative female cantor, and that “I beat out 18 men who all graduated from the seminaries.” 

When I began the Women Cantors’ Network, a dozen women came to a conference I advertised, in Norwalk, CT at my synagogue, Congregation Beth El. Two of those women became presidents of the organization and live on in our hearts. Both were extraordinary: Cantor Sue Roemer and Cantor Doris Cohen, may their memories be a blessing.

Roemer was the first woman cantor I had heard about. I was studying for the High Holy Days at Boston University’s Hillel with a brave and forward-thinking Rabbi Joseph Polak when he told me, “There’s someone who is doing what you want to do. You should meet her. Sue Roemer from the DC area.”

Roemer showed up at the first conference in Norwalk, and our deep friendship began. When Rabbi Jon Haddon, former director of the School of Sacred Music at HUC met her at a WCN conference years later he proclaimed, “Sue Roemer has more talent in her left pinky than anyone I’ve ever met!” 

Here was a woman who could lift the spirits of a room of strangers and use music as a healing power in ways we barely understood. It was an incredible experience – her music, her teaching, her conducting, her piano and singing. It was a whirlwind of brilliance, heart and soul. She needed a place to share as well, and the WCN became her safe space and home. 

Doris Cohen was Sholom Secunda’s favorite singer in his choir, and the backbone of anything in which she got involved. Solid, caring, talented and smart, Doris became our next president after me and our unofficial historian over the years. She was a beloved cantor in her community and quietly without any fanfare led as a spiritual leader with a gorgeous voice and soul.

I learned much from these two women of blessed memory. These are the kinds of women cantors that had no professional platform to share and learn. At the WCN they could get support and sing as a community of sacred leaders. The WCN was and continues to be a life support for singing spiritual leaders.  

At our most recent conference in Oklahoma City, the keynote speaker, Heather Aranyi, spoke about “Trauma, Music and the Breath.” She told us that communal singing is one of the best things you can do for yourself and for others. As we sang together over several days, in worship and informal song shares, we all experienced a lighter spirit, a deeper breath and a happier heart. I’m looking forward to the next celebration at 50. 

As my cousin Cantor Leopold Szneer, of blessed memory, said: “Life goes one way: forward.”       Follow: www.cantordebbie.com