Cantor says gender is no longer an issue Clergy: Judith K. Rowland, whose father was a Reform rabbi, decided in college to attend cantorial school. A woman leading worship in Baltimore's largest synagogue isn't a big deal now, she says.

August 04, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Judith K. Rowland, the cantor at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, is at the top of a profession that a generation ago didn't admit women.

But for Rowland, who leads worship at Baltimore's largest synagogue and who recently completed a three-year term as the second woman president of the American Conference of Cantors, her gender isn't a big deal.

And that, she says, is a big deal.

"It says that women have the same opportunities as men," Rowland said. "It says there's no controversy. That it's commonplace."

Rowland, 42, is one of three female cantors in the Baltimore area who have attended and been invested by seminaries, the others being Rhoda J. H. Silverman of the Reform Har Sinai Congregation in Upper Park Heights and Kimberly L. Komrad of the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills.

Cantors are considered clergy who serve in synagogues. They not only sing during synagogue services, but also preside at weddings and funerals, and supervise bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah education.

The fact that Rowland could be elected by her peers as president of the 400-member American Conference of Cantors, which represents cantors in the Reform movement, shows "that she wasn't elected because she was a woman, but she was elected because she's the best person for the job," Silverman said. "It's not so much about her being a woman. It's about her being the best."

About 140 women are in the American Conference of Cantors. And in recent years, women have outnumbered men in cantorial school. The 1998 class at Hebrew Union College, the only Reform cantorial school, had eight women and three men.

When Rowland was growing up, there were no female rabbis and no female cantors in Judaism. Female cantors were not invested in Reform Judaism until 1975. Conservative synagogues started investing women cantors in 1987. They are not permitted in Orthodox Judaism.

"There was no role model," she said. "I couldn't look at a woman cantor and say, 'I want to be that.' "

But in retrospect, she seemed cut out to be a cantor. Her father is a retired Reform rabbi. She was active in Reform youth work at the local and national levels. And she loved to sing. "I dabbled in stage roles of all kinds," she said. "I dabbled in opera, Broadway kinds of things, rock and roll and folk music."

In 1975, when Hebrew Union College in New York invested its first woman cantor, Rowland was a sophomore voice major at the State University of New York at Binghamton. One day she learned that a friend and classmate had decided he was going to be a cantor.

And she thought, why not me, too?

"There was nothing that fulfilled me like when I was doing synagogue activities," she said. "It never occurred to me that I couldn't do it because I was a woman. I just hadn't thought of it."

When Rowland graduated in 1981 from cantorial school, "I was one of 11 women [nationally] in the cantorate at that point," she said.

She served in New York synagogues, each progressively larger, in Forest Hill, Oceanside on Long Island and Spring Valley, before coming to Baltimore two years ago. Her synagogue is on Park Heights Avenue near the Baltimore County line.

In her first jobs, she encountered resistance from people who were not ready to hear a female voice during the Sabbath service.

"In the beginning, there were off-color comments, which I really don't hear anymore," she said.

Some people were put off because, according to how they interpreted Jewish law, they believed woman cantors were not permitted. Others were accustomed to the tenor or baritone of traditional male cantors, were not used to hearing the soprano or alto of a woman's voice in the synagogue.

But Rowland argued that cantorial styles don't correspond to whether the cantor is a man or a woman.

"Some people will say a woman is more nurturing or a woman is more soothing, but I've known men who are nurturing or soothing," she said. "I think everyone brings their own strengths and personalities to it, and I don't think that's a man or woman thing."

The only major difference she sees between her life and that of her male colleagues is that she has to balance a job that takes up 60 to 80 hours a week with being a mother of a high school-age daughter and a middle school-age son. "I'm doing the 'Supermom' thing," she said.

And in a turnabout, just as older people were unaccustomed to hearing a woman sing in the synagogue, some young people have only heard women.

"We are bringing up a generation of young people who have only heard a woman's voice as cantor," Rowland said. "And occasionally, you hear a gem out of a child's mouth, who says: 'Gee, I didn't know a man could be a cantor.' "

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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