At Washington Hebrew, student cantors find harmony

From left, Washington Hebrew Congregation Senior Cantor Susan Bortnick performs with student cantors Justin Callis and Beth Reinstein Saturday night.

Last Shabbat, Washington Hebrew Congregation welcomed two new voices as student cantors. Justin Callis and Beth Reinstein appeared for the first time during services, as well as at the synagogue’s Cantors’ Concert Saturday evening.

“They both came in, ready to do everything I asked of them, which was a lot to do,” said Cantor Susan Bortnick. “All of our congregants are talking about how amazing they were. You can just see their personalities shining through.”

This is the second year the congregation has hosted student cantors.
“People are really loving the idea that they can help mold future cantors who are going out there and serve Jewish communities and the Jewish people; the congregants are very excited about being part of their training,” Bortnick said. “As for what they bring to us, they bring youth, they bring energy, they bring their own knowledge of Jewish music and their own talents, abilities and knowledge … it’s really a two-way street.”

Both student cantors are second-year students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in New York City.
For Callis, who grew up in West Hartford, Conn., becoming a cantor has been a lifelong calling.

“I’ve always had the experience of, whenever I walk into a synagogue, someone always asks me, ‘Are you a cantor? You should be a cantor!’” Callis said, laughing.

While attending Northwestern University in Chicago, Callis was able to reconnect with his childhood cantor, Scott Simon, who became a mentor to him, he said, and encouraged him on his path toward becoming a cantor.

Reinstein was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she took part in her temple’s youth choir and discovered her love of music.

“I joined because I liked singing ‘Hakuna Matata’ and I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I like singing this other music,’” Reinstein recalled. “I also developed a very close connection with my cantor, and she gave me voice lessons. I felt, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll become a cantor,’ because temple choir was such a huge part of my Jewish identity.’”

Reinstein attended the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where she studied music, graduating with a degree in jazz and contemporary voice. Performing secular music as Elle Casazza, she and her band toured nationally and recorded and released three albums. She also took a position as worship leader and Sunday school music teacher at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Ill.

“I thought, I’m going to be a pop star, so being a cantor sort of went on the back burner,” Reinstein said. “Eventually, I was working as both a secular musician and a Jewish musician, and I ended up taking a year off of any Jewish music work on a regular basis, because I was struggling to keep my voice healthy. Singing late in a club Saturday night and then waking up early to sing with kids on Sunday morning is a lot on the voice,” Reinstein said.

Reinstein said that attending Hava Nashira, the Union of Reform Judaism’s annual songleading and music workshop, convinced her that cantorial school was where she truly belonged.

“It was there that the little voice in the back of my head that said, ‘This is what you want to do’ got very loud, and it was there that I realized I definitely wanted to be a cantor; this is what brings me joy, it speaks to my soul, and here we are now, two years later,” Reinstein said.

Both Reinstein and Callis spent their first year of cantorial school online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic, in a way that is surprising to no one, completely upended what we thought we were going to do,” Callis said. “I think that we have been incredibly lucky that they have found a group of students who are remarkably well-suited to the challenges of starting an intensive educational program online.”

Reinstein and Callis both said they were excited for their musical debut to the Washington Hebrew community over the weekend.

“I was nervous, but it was so much fun to get to sing together with other people, in real time, with Cantor Bortnick, with Justin, to get to create a three-part harmony again, to be with a live band, and a live audience. Oh, it was a treat and a dream,” Reinstein said.
Callis added, “Any nervousness I might have had was overridden by the fact that this was my first concert singing in person in a Jewish space since February of 2012,” Callis said. “I don’t know about Beth, but I spent the whole weekend with a big, goofy grin on my face, thinking, ‘People! Music! At the same time!’”

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