Women Cantors’ Network carves out space in American Jewry

Women have always prayed, they just haven’t always been allowed to pray as leaders of a congregation in a synagogue. From the earliest of times, women wrote tekhines—personal prayers about their families and their dwellings. But, for much of history, women’s voices were relegated to the home.

That started to change during the late 19th and 20th centuries. While there was a woman here and there who led services like the first cantor in the U.S. Julie Rosenwald who served San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El from 1884 until 1893  and Betty Robbins who was appointed cantor of the Reform Temple Avodah in Oceanside, New York in 1955. But it wasn’t until the rise of feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s that more women wanted to become ordained as cantors (and rabbis). Increasingly, gifted female musicians were participating in the religious musical expression of American Jewry.

Deborah Katchko-Gray was one such woman. Having grown up in a cantorial family (her father and grandfather were both well known and well respected cantors), and after leading Hillel services at Boston University as a student there, she knew she had found her calling. She auditioned for and secured a full time Conservative cantorial position in Connecticut. However, she felt alienated and alone, being one of only a handful of women serving in a cantorial role. In 1981, Katchko-Gray went to a cantorial convention and, amazingly, there was a whole table of women cantors there, including Elaine Shapiro, the first female graduate of the Cantor’s Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The dozen women agreed to meet and Katchko-Gray organized the first meeting at her synagogue in Norwalk, CT in May, 1982. This group of women formed the Women Cantors’ Network (WCN).

In the last 40 years, the WCN has grown into an international organization of over 250 women (and a few men) who are cantors, student cantors, rabbis, educators, musicians, composers—those who want to transmit our Jewish heritage through music and whose spirits are moved by our people’s sacred music.

Women Cantors’ Network members at the last in-person conference in 2019. (Photo by Susan Shane Linder)

Today, women make up the majority of the cantorial classes in all of the non-Orthodox seminaries and women’s voices are being heard loud and clear. Even though the status of women has changed in the more liberal movements, the WCN offers nurturing and caring community, which was previously hard to find. It has become, among other things, an outreach support group, with a regular quarterly newsletter regarding topics women cantors face. Some topics discussed include: cantors and COVID-19, and best practices for ZoomMitzvahs; an annual “review” of our conference, for those not able to attend; retirement issues for women and how to handle them; negotiating a contract when you are the only woman in the room; reviews of new music that we can use; and the journeys and paths we have followed to become cantors. 

We also have a listserv to ask questions and bounce ideas off one another, as well as an annual conference, which allows members the opportunity to pray and sing together, learn new music, discuss issues prevalent to female cantors, and to “refill their cups” in order to better serve their own communities.

Women are leading prayer from the bimah, women are composing music for synagogues, camps and, sometimes, specifically, for women’s voices. Women lead choirs, perform Jewish musical concerts, and teach—from preschool classes, through Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Adult Education classes. The WCN recently published a songbook: Kol Isha: Songs and Settings of Prayers, all composed by members of the WCN. Women have changed the way prayer is expressed, as well as the way it is received, and the Jewish faith is richer for it.


For more information, please visit us at www.womencantors.net.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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