Cantor Rochelle Helzner isn’t comfortable with words. She prefers to get her message across through wordless melodies.
“That’s how I reveal myself, my heart and my soul,” she said. “That’s how I primarily share myself with others.”
Helzner, 68, has been the cantor of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville for 36 years, a double chai in Jewish numerology. Since 1984, she’s been working to create a singing congregation at Tikvat Israel. She’ll be honored at a virtual event on June 6. “From the Heart” will feature guest singers and dancers along with tribute messages from congregants.
“She’s given us so many gifts over the years,” said congregation co-president Jim Perlmutter of Rockville. “The gift of her involvement in our community. The gift of mentoring so many young people in our congregation. The gift of being so committed, keeping us united together during COVID. So we are looking at this as a way of returning the gifts that she’s given to us over the years.”
The congregation has established several musical programs under Helzner’s leadership, like a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat with instruments, a Purim puppet show and an annual concert series.
Perlmutter said Helzner “has been part of the glue that kept us together during COVID.” He’s also grateful for Helzner’s house calls, such as the time she visited his mother-in-law in hospice and sang to her.
“And these moments are magical,” Perlmutter said. “I mean, they just lift up the spirit of that particular person. So it’s that pastoral care nature that she is uniquely expert in. She takes this calling incredibly seriously. Lifting people’s spirits at times of need, times of sorrow and times of joy, that makes her quite unique.”
Helzner grew up in Silver Spring in a home she described as both Reform and Conservative. This duality greatly influenced her Jewish identity.
“From the Conservative side, I really developed a love for the traditional,” Helzner said. “And from the Reform side, I learned that a woman can do anything and take any leadership role in prayer.”
But it was through her involvement at the participatory Fabrangen havurah in Washington that Helzner discovered her “spiritual calling” and affinity for Jewish melodies. Her husband, Robert Agus, was a founder of Fabrangen. He died in 2019.
Helzner said she set out to become a cantor in Conservative tradition, mastering the art while studying under several male cantors. Tikvat Israel hired her seven years after the first Conservative synagogue hired a female cantor.
“Well, I felt very blessed and I felt very proud,” Helzner said. “They were open minded and courageous, and just decided that the person that was right for the job as their cantor happened to be a woman.”
Perlmutter chaired the search committee that hired Helzner. He said it was not only her vocal talent that made her stand out, but also “her personality, her warmth, her ability to project yiddishkeit. Authenticity.”
Perlmutter said at the time of Helzner’s hiring, the synagogue was making efforts to become egalitarian. Having a female cantor encouraged female congregants to become more involved, Perlmutter said.
“We struck gold when we brought [Helzner] to our congregation,” Perlmutter said. “At the beginning, she was really a role model for many of the women in the congregation. But as time went on, it was obvious that she was a role model for everyone.”
Helzner is happy about the community she’s helped shaped and looks forward to the day when COVID is history and congregants can sing together in person again.
“COVID has taught us that we really have to seize the moment and to find alternative ways to create paths for holiness,” Helzner said. “My greatest joy is to sing together as a community.”
“From the Heart” will be streamed on June 6 at 7:30 p.m. For information, visit tikvatisrael.org.