A Conservative cantor deeply rooted in the Reform movement’s “songleader tradition,” Joanna Dulkin began her new position as cantor at The Jewish Center in Princeton on July 8.
Even though both music and Judaism have always been part of Dulkin’s life, she said she was the last person to know she would become a cantor.
“I realized that becoming a cantor integrated everything I loved to do: teaching, working with people, problem solving, making music, thinking about spirituality and spiritual practice, Jewish community building, and, of course, services and b’nei mitzva,” she said.
For synagogue president Gil Gordon, her arrival opens an exciting chapter in The Jewish Center’s history. “The role of music is central in our traditions and our education, and we know Hazzan Dulkin will do so very much to enliven our services and our programming,” he said.
Growing up, Dulkin was active in the Reform Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., including its junior choir and youth group. But her real passion from ages seven to 17 was the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre.
“It gave me a great foundation and training, whether in singing, acting, dancing, and working with other people,” she said.
Before her senior year of high school, she attended URJ Kutz Camp in upstate New York and found personal meaning in the prayers. “I came back home and knew I had to be a songleader,” she said.
Dulkin, who had been trained in classical piano, locked herself in her room with her mother’s old guitar and taught herself to play.
Unlike a “person singing at you,” she said, “songleading is not about performing; it is about making the group the star and allowing a song or a musical moment to transform a community.”
The summer before college, while their rabbi was on vacation, Dulkin and her mother served as songleaders at their synagogue. The experience led to a High Holy Days gig for Dulkin the following fall at Stanford University, where she studied English and prepared for a future as an academic and a writer.
During her junior year at Oxford University in England, she did research on King Lear in the Bodleian Library, but on the side played one of the leads in Cabaret and became a songleader for the Jewish Society on the campus.
Making sacred moments
After graduation, she became program director at Stanford Hillel. There she engaged with all the rabbis of the community. “I realized that my Jewish literacy was not as high as I would have liked it to be,” she said. “The more that I learned, the more I discovered what I didn’t know, and I became very interested not only in ritual and tradition but in the larger context of the Jewish story and narrative.”
She met her husband, Rabbi Ryan Dulkin, recently appointed as assistant professor of rabbinic literature at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, on a weekend songleading gig. Together they began studying and experimenting with observance and different modes of prayer. “My husband and I were on the same journey at the same time,” she said.
After a year, she left Hillel and embarked on a career as a freelance Jewish music educator, moved to New York a year later when her husband began rabbinical school, and beefed up her Hebrew in preparation for cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which she began in fall 2000.
“JTS gave me the full context — not in isolation — ‘this prayer, plus this melody, this nusach, this chanting,’” she said. “It has become a whole, and I have been able to put it together more working in the field for 10 years.”
Dulkin also served as the first musical director of Ramah Darom, a summer camp in Georgia, in the summer of 1999.
Dulkin’s first pulpit position was at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, and she spent seven years at Shaare Zedek (now Kol Rina) in St. Louis.
Working as a full-time cantor since her investment in 2004, Dulkin has been part of a changing conception of the cantor’s role.
“Cantors, especially now, are so much more than daveners. It is important to know what is going on on the page, but hazzanim today do so much more than look at a piece of liturgy and sing it. We are pastors, teachers, leaders in the community,” she said.
Dulkin appreciates “the privilege of being with people at very critical liminal moments in their lives — the happy and not happy moments — to share those moments and make them Jewish moments and sacred moments.”