Adina Ackerman, the new hazzan, or cantor, at Shaare Tefila congregation in Olney lives life on the creative side. She has a bachelor’s degree in visual arts and design and hopes to bring her artistic eye and her particular love of the fiber arts to the 245-household Conservative congregation. In fact, she’s already making plans to teach all upcoming bar and bat mitzvah students to tie their own tzitzit — the fringes that hang at the four corners of a prayer shawl.
Ackerman, 59, is among the early generation of female cantors in the Conservative movement. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York the same year the first two female cantors were ordained. Her first posting was at Congregation Rodfei Tzedek in Chicago.
She married a college sweetheart when they reconnected in Chicago and the couple made their way to Washington, settling in Fairfax. There, while raising two boys, Ackerman taught music, liturgy and Jewish holiday songs at Gesher Jewish Day School. She also continues to teach synagogue skills and trope, the melodies and cantillation notes for reading the Torah and haftarah, at Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax. As a circuit-riding High Holiday cantor, she spent the past five Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays leading a congregation in Mobile, Ala.
“Shaare Tefila is a very solidly singing congregation,” Ackerman said. “I was so thrilled when I auditioned and heard those voices behind me. We daven facing the “aron kodesh” [holy ark] and it was lovely. It was like the wind at your back.” That makes her job as cantor more satisfying: “I can do even more and challenge the congregation.”
While Ackerman has composed in the past, for now she’s looking at arranging — the synagogue has a small choir of about a dozen members that sings at holidays and Shabbat Shira services, which are song-infused services that Shaare Tefila holds about four times a year. She said members can’t get enough singing in otherwise.
For the Hebrew school she will do some music teaching and tutoring, and maybe some creative projects using the fiber arts. Additionally, a cohort of Olney-area synagogues come together for holiday services and that has been particularly gratifying for Ackerman.
Ackerman will collaborate on a joint Selichot service on Sept. 1 at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville. In addition to Shaare Tefila, B’nai Shalom of Olney is also participating.
“It’s lovely to have a chance to meet people from the surrounding congregations and to see the way the clergy and the lay leadership of these congregations are working together,” she said. “It really makes a nice local kehillah [communal] feeling. We’re not just part of our synagogue, but we’re part of the larger community.”