New cantor embraces position’s changing role
TSTI’s Rebecca Moses brings experience as song leader and educator
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
When Cantor Rebecca Moses began her tenure at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel on July 3, it marked the first change in musical leadership for the congregation since Ted Aronson, now cantor emeritus, began his career there 45 years ago.
While that could have been “daunting or scary” for a new cantor, said Moses, “with him, it’s not. He’s so invested in my success. He’s an amazing person.”
Aronson’s support for his successor is a reflection of the South Orange Reform synagogue’s collaborative approach, said Moses.
“What really hit the nail on the head was that when I came here to interview, we had a staff lunch. And everyone really enjoyed being together,” said Moses. “There was a really warm atmosphere. And that’s what I was looking for — a team of people who value each other and truly love the work they do and do it well together.”
Moses comes to TSTI after serving Congregation Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Missouri and also attended the University of North Texas School of Music in Denton, Tex., before entering cantorial school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
Moses, who lives in West Orange with her husband and their two cats, spent her early years in New Orleans with her parents, but moved back to her mother’s native San Antonio, Tex., after her parents divorced. She is the seventh generation in her family from San Antonio, and her mother taught in the religious school of the family’s longtime synagogue. Moses’s earliest memories include “being passed from confirmation student to confirmation student in my mother’s classroom,” she said.
Underwhelmed by her childhood congregation’s cantorial soloist — a non-Jewish opera singer hired for the High Holy Days — she never considered the cantorate. “It was beautiful, but it wasn’t how I chose to pray,” she said, noting that the service was performance-oriented, rather than participatory. “Singing alone is lonely,” she said. “If I wanted to perform, I would have pursued a career in the opera.”
When she was 16, however, a cantor came to the synagogue in San Antonio to do a special program for Shabbat Shira, or the “Sabbath of Song.” “I realized she got to do what I loved: to work with music and put it in a Jewish context. I always thought you needed a regular job through the week so you could go to the synagogue on the weekend. And I said — that’s it. That’s what I want. It’s the perfect combination of music and performance.”
While current trends suggest a waning interest in traditional, performance-oriented hazanut, Moses, 32, sees an opportunity to shine a light on all the skills she and other young cantors have beyond song leader.
“In my previous position, I was the cantor and the educator, and I could use my skills not just for hazanut but to change the dynamics of the religious school and connect it with the rest of the congregation,” she said. “The days when the cantor comes in on Friday and Saturday to sing are not the norm anymore.” A recent move by Hebrew Union College to ordain cantors — as opposed to “investing” them — sets just the right tone in this regard, she said.
Moses’s musical influences are eclectic, ranging from opera and hazanut to jazz and musical theater. Performing is in her blood — she was a professional child actor who toured the South and Midwest in musical theater. But that’s not what defines her style on the bima.
“I try to make sure there’s a little old, a little new, a little of this and a little of that,” she said. “I want to offer something for those who come because they are ready to celebrate Shabbat, but also for those who come because they are saying Kaddish, or who come to relax and unwind and find some space to meditate in.”