Cantors Laura Croen and Rachel Rhodes met in 2014 when Rhodes became associate cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom. Croen had been senior cantor at Temple Sinai in the District for two decades.
“She welcomed me with open arms [all] those years ago as a new colleague and we have always had a very special relationship,” Rhodes said of Croen.
On June 30, Croen will retire as senior cantor of the Reform congregation. Her successor will be Rhodes.
“I feel honored to work with her on a closer level now as she imparts wisdom about her time at Temple Sinai,” said Rhodes, whose tenure begins July 1.
Temple Sinai will celebrate Croen’s influence and leadership with a series of programs between now and June 2, 2 including a performance by Jewish a capella group Six13, a party with music and dancing and a Friday-night service with clergy from across her career and members of the congregation offering blessings to her.
Croen announced her retirement last year. Senior Rabbi Jonathan Roos said the transition has served as a way for Temple Sinai to consider its values and future.
“It’s a big transition, a big change to move from a cantor of 30 years,” Roos said. “We started with a self-reflection process across the demographics of our community to answer what does our congregation look for and value in a cantor?”
The temple began by polling its 1,250 families. The survey ranked the responsibilities of a cantor and identified the roles the congregation of Temple Sinai was looking for the new cantor to fill.
The most important role was leading worship and followed by directing the music programs, working with b’nai mitzvah families, providing pastoral care, leading youth music and education programs and teaching adults.
Rhodes’ knowledge and experience with Jewish music is rich and unique. She recently spent a three-month sabbatical in Israel, studying Sephardic Torah cantillation and piyutim, or liturgical poems. Since her return, she has chanted Torah in Sephardic Yerushalmi trope at Temple Rodef Shalom.
Roos said this is an exciting time for Temple Sinai, as they honor a cantor who has been a pillar of the community and welcome a cantor with great strength of intellect and vision.
Croen “has a beautiful voice and a sense of the artistry of Jewish music, but also the emotional impact that it can have on a worshipper,” Roos said.
As for Rhodes, “She has a fascinating set of skills and ability to incorporate a music style that is somewhat foreign from what we’re used to but is such an important part of our history,” Roos said.
Sephardic music is learned by ear because the musical modes include quarter notes, a note in between a half-note, that cannot be written on a Western scale, Rhodes explained.
Rhodes’ powerful commitment to learning, teaching and exploring a full range of Jewish music are part of what made her a standout candidate, according to Roos. That and because of her commitment to a cause near and dear to the hearts of Temple Sinai’s congregants — social justice.
“It’s part of the founding ethos of the congregation,” Roos said. According to Rhodes, the work of Temple Sinai’s Davis Center was a major factor in her decision to apply for the position of senior cantor. The Davis Center for Social Justice was created to provide more resources, staff and tools as a way to strengthen the social justice work of Temple Sinai.
“While I care about many social justice issues, I define myself at my core as a Jewish environmentalist,” Rhodes said, “I hope to bring my passion for environmental justice to my cantorate at Temple Sinai just as I have at Temple Rodef Shalom. I hope to engage with and inspire the next generation, [so] that they may grow to be future Jewish leaders.” ■