Launching the First Cohort of the Cantorial Certification Program - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Launching the First Cohort of the Cantorial Certification Program

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Cantorial Certification Program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) launched its first cohort of students with a kallah held at the New York campus from January 6-10, 2013. The Cantorial Certification Program, operating under the auspices of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM), provides soloists who have been in the field at least five years with the opportunity to gain cantorial credentials and become full members of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC). 

In December, HUC-JIR announced the acceptance of six cantorial soloists into the Cantorial Certification Program.  These accomplished soloists are continuing to serve their congregations as they embark upon this four year professional journey which will include study at HUC-JIR both in New York and in Jerusalem. The rigorous part-time program consists of both online learning and face-to-face kallot with HUC-JIR faculty, small group study, guidance from mentors, and serious time spent in development of knowledge and skills, as well as reflection upon one’s own spiritual foundation and the sharing of one’s current work in the field.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin, Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program, explained, "I am so impressed with this group of gifted and committed soloists, all of whom have devoted themselves to their own continued spiritual and academic growth in order that they might more fully serve their congregations and the Jewish people."

The first kallah began on Sunday, January 6 with an opening ritual and orientation.  Classes throughout the week included Liturgical Arts with Cantor Andy Bernard and Rabbi Yoel Kahn, Tanakh with Rabbi David Nelson, Self and System with Rabbi Kim Geringer, and Cantor and the Congregational Voice with Cantor Rosalie Boxt. The kallah included tefilah, choral singing, and concluded with a special closing ritual on Thursday afternoon.

Cantor Boxt commented, "Spending many hours each day with students and faculty - learning, exploring, laughing, singing, and struggling together - reminded me of what it means to be a cantor, and what it means to - at any age and stage - recommit one's self to study, to learning, and to deepening relationships with people and the Divine."

Sheera Ben-David, a member of the first cohort who currently serves as the cantorial soloist of Temple Israel of New York City, stated, “After experiencing my first kallah with amazing colleagues by my side, I realized I have finally begun to climb the mountain of learning after years of wandering the desert. The Cantorial Certification Program is a blessing to all who are ready to take the next steps towards deeper meaning. This program will bring greater depth to your time on and off the Bimah!”  Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz, also a member of the first cohort, added, “I know that this additional education will inform everything I do, adding the depth of knowledge that I crave.  As we experienced during the first kallah, the next four years will be a time of intensive learning from and with fantastic faculty, as well as a time of self-discovery, as we grow into the cantors that each of us was meant to be.”

Cantor Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York and Cantor Bruce Ruben, Director, DFSSM, were invited to serve as guest lecturers during the kallah. Cantor Ruben noted, “I studied with the first cohort of the new Cantorial Certification Program. What an impressive, serious, and talented group of students! They will be a credit to our profession.”

Cantor Dreskin remarked, "I am grateful for these faculty members, in addition to coaches and mentors from the field, who are taking time from their already full schedules to share their gifts with these future cantors.  By the end of the kallah, I believe that we all felt an enormous sense of trust, community, and excitement for the future."

If your congregation is currently served by a soloist, please consider supporting them in their efforts to become a full clergy partner who understands that being a Cantor is about so much more than liturgical repertoire (which is also, of course, a major part of the Certification curriculum!).  The deadline for applications for the next cohort (which will begin in October, 2013) is March 25, 2013. 

For further information, please visit the Cantorial Certification Program website or contact Ellen Dreskin, Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program, at

Meet the first cohort:

Sarene Appelbaum currently serves as cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Torah in Melville, NY. Prior to joining Temple Beth Torah, Appelbaum served congregations in Florida, Maryland and South Carolina. Appelbaum's connection to Jewish music began at a very young age with songwriting and solo performances. Her first award-winning composition, written and performed in second grade for Temple Beth Shalom of Florida, was “Mommy, Mommy, look at me, me and Judah Macabee.” Her exploration of Jewish music went on a hiatus while she pursued her interest in secular music and completed a degree in music business/vocal performance from William Paterson University in New Jersey. Sarene performed on stage in New York, New Jersey and South Carolina in many genres including classical, musical theater, and solo singer-songwriter.


Sheera Ben-David, who currently serves at Temple Israel in New York, has spent her life immersed in the Jewish community and congregations. After receiving a BFA from New York University – Tisch School of the Arts, Sheera began her cantorial career as the Soloist for Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem, NY, and went on to serve Beth Am Temple of Pearl River, NY, and Central Synagogue, NY. Over the years, she taught at many synagogues such as Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila of New York City, Temple Israel of New Rochelle, Temple Beth El of Chappaqua, and Larchmont Temple. As an extension of her love and devotion to music, Sheera is an award winning cabaret singer. She has delivered multiple critically-acclaimed runs at the former Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel, The Royal Room of The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, and other popular venues around the county.


A member of the Guild of Temple Musicians, an affiliate of the American Conference of Cantors, Rachel Kalmowitz has held her position at Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Hills, MI, since 2004. The various congregations she has served include Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, NY; Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, MI; Temple Beth Emet in Evanston, IL; and most recently the Temple of Universal Judaism in New York City. Rachel has sung with the professional choirs at Park Avenue Synagogue and Temple Emanuel in New York City. Her recordings include solo and choral performances on compact discs for the Milken Family Foundation’s American Jewish Music Archive and on Timeless Jewish Songs. Significant mentors in her liturgical music development were Dr. Samuel Adler and Cantor Jeffrey Klepper.


Neil Michaels, Cantorial Soloist at Temple Israel at West Bloomfield, MI, for the past eight years, is a Toronto native and comes from an illustrious family of musicians and cantors. Neil brings to Temple Israel his vast experience from a vibrant professional musical career, having performed leading roles in opera and musical theatre in the country’s most recognizable houses. Neil pursued his Bachelors degree at the Juilliard School, and graduate studies in Philadelphia at The Curtis Institute of Music. At Temple Israel, Neil directs the B’nai Mitzvah Program and coordinates a varied yearly program of services and concerts. One of Neil’s recent creations is the “Shir HaShabbat” service which features modern technology in the form of constantly flowing visuals combined with a fully scored service enriched by a large congregational choir. Neil has had the honor of leading services at several conventions for the American Conference of Cantors and Guild of Temple Musicians.

Lori Shapiro has been Cantorial Soloist at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton (TBE) since 1997 and a member since 1991. Leading services, directing the Shir Joy youth choir, and preparing students one-on-one for their b’nai mitzvah service are only some of her many responsibilities. In 2009, through Lori’s efforts, Temple Beth El received a Legacy Heritage Grant which enabled them to create “Shir Ruach,” a teen song leader’s group comprised of fifteen teens who perform and regularly lead services at TBE. With a BFA in music-theatre, Lori enjoyed a successful career in theatre, film, commercials, and continues to do voiceover work. She is a member of Actors Equity Association and Screen Actors Guild, the Guild of Temple Musicians, and the Women Cantors Network.


Rachel Reef-Simpson joined Temple Beth David in Westwood, MA, in 2008 after serving for five years as Cantorial Soloist, Music Educator, B'nai Mitzvah tutor, Choir Director, and Hebrew teacher at Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA. Educated at Boston University and Berklee College of Music, Rachel received her Cantorial Arts Certificate at Hebrew College in June 2007. Prior to serving at Temple Etz Chaim, Rachel worked as either Cantorial Soloist and/or Music, Judaic, and Hebrew educator at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, Congregation B'nai Torah in Sudbury, and The Nursery School at Temple Beth Am in Framingham. Rachel's former job experience includes Music Director at Riverside Theatre Works in Hyde Park, and owner/educator of two Kindermusik Early Childhood Music Studios in Sudbury and Southboro.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.