CONSERVATIVE FEMALE CANTOR FITS IN RELIGION: LINDA RICH FOLLOWS SWEET-VOICED FOREFATHERS' CAREER PATH.
ENCINO -- When Cantor Linda Rich is davening -- singing the Jewish prayers -- at Temple Ner Maarav's Shabbat services, she urges congregants to join in, rather than just listen.
She fits in well at this small, unpretentious temple with a loyal congregation. But it's not the place you'd expect to find someone who's made history.
Rich, a fifth-generation cantor, made headlines in 1978 when she was hired by Temple Beth Zion in Los Angeles as the first female Conservative Jewish cantor in the United States.
"A woman, in traditional Judaism, is not allowed to be a cantor because the voice of a woman would distract men from their prayers," said Rich, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family.
"There is an Orthodox cantor manual, and one of the requirements is to have a beard. Another requirement is to have a sweet voice. In fact, a cantor is the 'sweet singer of Israel."'
The first Reform Jewish cantor, Betty Robbins, debuted in 1955 at a New York Reform congregation. The Orthodox Jewish tradition does not allow women on the bimah, the synagogue equivalent of the Christian church altar.
Since Rich was hired in September, she has been using her self-described "sweet" earthy-toned, alto-mezzo voice to lead prayers on Shabbat and holidays for the Conservative Jewish congregation.
"We liked her. We're open-minded. We don't think of her as a woman anymore. She's our cantor," said Uri Grinblat, president of Temple Ner Maarav, with a slight pause and a smile in his voice. "She has it in her blood. She's impressive."
Grinblat said Rich -- with her vocal expertise, knowledge and comportment -- reminded him of cantors in his native Israel.
Superficially, it might seem that Rich is performing songs during services, but if that were the case, she wouldn't be doing her job.
"A cantor is the representative for the congregation. Not everyone knows Hebrew, the traditional chants, or maybe they can't pray. I'm the intermediary taking God's words, putting a sweetness to them and sending them to God," Rich said.
Rich was on a musical-theater career path but found her calling in life when she was leading prayers at a retirement home in Laguna Hills.
Tears came to her eyes as she prayed, and her family's illustrious and lengthy cantorial tradition kicked in and told her that the experience was what she was meant to do.
She trained privately. One of her mentors was the late Cantor Allan Michelson from Adat Ari El in North Hollywood.
"I learned the different melodies," Rich said. "Did you know that when you chant in a certain mode, people could tell you the time of day because of the melody?
"There is a different mode for the scroll of Esther that we read on Purim, which is coming up this month, and different ones for Ruth and Lamentations. It's quite, quite involved to be a cantor."
Rich's first cantorial position was at a Reform synagogue in San Pedro. Her groundbreaking years were at Temple Beth Zion.
Locally, she has also been a cantor at Burbank's Temple Emanu El, Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge and Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.
At Temple Ner Maarav, Rich teaches the bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah and confirmation classes. She has high praise for the haimish -- warm and homey -- congregation.
"This is a very personal congregation -- everyone knows your name. Bigger is not always better, believe me," Rich said. "They've accepted me with open arms."
Ner Maarav -- "candle of the west" in Hebrew -- has about 140 families. The temple has a nursery school, Hebrew school and adult-education classes.
"We're a very unpretentious congregation. We're small, but we want to continue to be a viable part of the community," said Bernie Bubman, a Ner Maarav member for 45 years. "We're reaching out more now to couples of mixed marriage. We'd like them to be a part of our congregation."
Part of Rich's cantorial duty is to uplift spirits, and she encourages the congregation at Ner Maarav to join in singing rather than just listen.
"God loves to hear you sing. In the Torah, it was thought your prayers reached God's ears when you sang," Rich said. "When you sing, the prayers get to your soul. What's kept us strong as Jews is our prayer and the words in the Torah. I try to involve people to come back to their Jewish roots."
Shabbat services, 8 p.m. Fridays, except for family service at 7 p.m. the first Friday of the month, and 9 a.m. Saturdays, Temple Ner Maarav, 17730 Magnolia Blvd., Encino. Purim carnival, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. March 16. Purim service, 7 p.m. March 20. Call 818-345-7833. www.nermaarav.org.
Linda Rich, who in 1978 became the first Conservative Jewish woman cantor in the United States, now serves Temple Ner Maarav in Encino. "When you sing, the prayers get to your soul," she says.
Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2008|
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