Rochelle Nelson - Interview with Jeffrey Summit


Rochelle Nelson

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In this interview, Cantor Rachelle Nelson, shares her thoughts on the cantorate from the perspective of a young recent HUC graduate, currently serving at Temple Israel of Greater Miami. Growing up at summer camps and later working as a cantorial soloist, this native Floridian has a strong background in popular and folk guitar. Having found success as a cantorial soloist, Nelson desired to work with people, and was excited that the door was now open for women to become cantors. She expresses her concerns with dating, fearing whether men can handle a wife who's a cantor. Nelson also comments on being a publicly recognized figure. While she had been concerned about interdenominational reception of the welcoming of women to this career, she's pleasantly finding that she's getting the respect she deserves.

Nelson wears many hats at her synagogue. She composes music, visits people in hospitals, teaches, privately tutors cantorial soloists, and gives sermons. She acknowledges that she is fortunate to have these many opportunities due to the fact that the rabbi she works with is secure with granting her this flexibility. Also commenting on her opinions of the clergy, Nelson says that she doesn't like clergy that perform too much from the bimah. On the other hand, she also feels others could use more theatrics to excite people. Truly successful clergy find the balance in between. Regarding rabbi relations, Nelson reports that she and her rabbi communicate well and are comfortable with on-the-spot changes. The rabbi utilizes Nelson's skills and lets her shine. Nelson feels appreciated by both the rabbi and the congregation. She feels that as role models in the community, clergy need to exemplify good values. While the rabbi shares Torah through sermons and the cantor shares liturgy through music, they work together. Nelson also notes that congregants need to see that their clergy get along with each other. She likens it to a child that doesn't want to see his parents fighting. Nelson wants people to feel good in synagogue and feel confident that Judaism offers them something special. She invites congregants to participate and seeks to bring joy into the service. She says that the synagogue should be a safe place for community and an environment for Shabbat to be a separate time from the workweek. In structuring a service, Nelson looks for communal songs, sermon anthems, and introductions in which she may even play on the flute. While most of the sources for the music she selects are from modern composers like Steinberg, Davidson, and Friedman, she also occasionally sings the nusach of Alter and Katchko. She mentions that she finds it hard to daven personally while leading services, especially during special services because there is a lot to coordinate with choir and such. She acknowledges that with time and comfort, she has become more able to daven, even as a prayer leader, during services. In addition, she notes another advantage of singing old favorites is that it enables her to daven because she is less concerned with the complications of new music. While she still wants to record an album of her own compositions, Nelson speaks about finding real satisfaction training children for their B'nai Mitzvah. Nelson feels that she's very approachable to this age group and represents a balance of coolness and kindness. She says that people are more impressionable at this age and she tries to use that to her advantage in guiding them toward making good Jewish choices. Nelson also speaks about what she calls "Hazzan groupies" and remarks that the cantor can be lighter than the rabbi and communicate through music, which further attracts people to her favor. Nelson says that she is happy to see women approach cantorate, but is also sad to see men leave the profession. While the following comment implies a male-dominated rabbinate, she comments that the influx of women to the cantorate is potentially better for rabbi-cantor relations, as opposite sexes work better together. Reflecting on this new generation of cantors, Nelson says that they want more - both with regard to money and experience. They are more aggressive and more willing to be more creative and collaborative with rabbis. She credits HUC in both offering rabbinic classes to cantorial students and initiating cantor-rabbi collaboration through service leading opportunities for what will hopefully be better inter-clergy communication as well as better communal leadership over all.

Summary by Lauren Levy (April 2014), 4th year cantorial student in Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, HUC--JIR, NY


Access to archival quality sound files is restricted. For permission to obtain copies of these, please contact Mark Slobin at mslobin@wesleyan.edu.

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