Overcoming the Odds: Cantor Mindy F. Jacobsen

by David M. Mannes

“It's been an incredible ride,” says Mindy Jacobsen when she speaks of her cantorial career. And indeed it has been, despite the fact that Mindy Jacobsen is blind, caused by a problem from her premature birth. Mindy was born and raised in Miami, and came to New York when she was twenty-one. She was a singer and performer, hoping to get her career off to a boost. She took a job at the Jewish Braille Institute, and ended up being a last-minute replacement for a special event concert because the scheduled singer couldn't make it. She quickly found an accompanist and put together a program. Afterwards, her boss called her in; Mindy said she was very nervous, afraid she had done something wrong. At the meeting, He wanted to know if she'd accept a scholarship for Cantorial training at Hebrew Union College. “I hadn't thought about that,” admitted Mindy. When she considered the cantorial career choice in her youth, her parents response was, “…Women have never done that.” But the question continued to intrigue her. With Cantor Paul Kwartin as her sponsor, she entered Hebrew Union College. Women cantors were a rarity back in the 1970's.

Mindy recounted an incident at her audition, when one of the professors on the committee said something to the effect of, “I don't like to hear women chanting. I don't think women have the kind of voices that people will want to hear, and I don't believe that blind people can really make it as Cantors.”

When she was called to the Dean's office on the day she auditioned for the College, she was very apprehensive, wondering if she would be accepted. The Dean at the time, Paul Steinberg, shook her hand and said, “Welcome, we're pleased to have you with us.” On the first day of school, Mindy recalled attending a class where the instructor decided to demonstrate the Mincha-Maariv service but wouldn’t do it without a minyan. Wanting to save himself a trip to shul, he looked around and counted only nine men; there were three women present in class so he felt he could do the minyan. The message conveyed was that three women were equal to one man. In reality, the instructor was quite open-minded, but counting women as part of a minyan was just not typically done back then.

In the lunchroom, she and her fellow female classmates could hear mutterings of sexual innuendo among the usual male conversations. They took that attitude with humor. “It was a different mindset back then,” says Mindy, “and the first women needed the consent of the men to even get into the field since men staffed it and held all the cards.” In addition, the cantors and rabbis would sit separately in the lunchroom. There seemed to be a true mechitza, but Mindy and her friends would often break the boundaries and sit with the rabbinical students.

While the scholarship paid for some of the books, she depended heavily upon the support of other students and faculty for assistance in chanting prayers onto cassettes so she could learn them. Mindy received a lot of support from her fellow students. They would record inaccessible articles and hand-outs for her, and her class-mates often got together for group study sessions.

In her second year at HUC, most students had student pulpits; even the women in the program were placed immediately. However, congregations were fearful of having a blind cantor, concerned with issues of insurance and liability. HUC would periodically receive requests for women cantors, as congregations were curious about their contributions. Mindy became a female cantor-ambassador, traveling across the country on a demonstration tour. Typically, she would give a concert, conduct services and teach. She recalled staying at the home of the rabbi and his family in Corpus Christi, TX. It was the first time she ever experienced having a maid or lady-in-waiting. The woman would run her bath, and immediately wash and iron any discarded clothing. There was always a drink waiting for Mindy when she went to the veranda. Mindy said they put a bell on the night table for her so she could summon the lady when needed, and she was chauffeured around in luxury. When Mindy left, the lady asked her to autograph her slippers, but that was too much for Mindy. She left her a note instead. Mindy had a wide-variety of travel experiences, from a VW bug to a Rolls Royce and motels to luxurious hotels and homes.

In her third year, Mindy finally secured a real student pulpit. On the evening of her first Rosh Hashanah service her heel caught on a nail in the carpet and she fell. She picked herself up and continued to do the service as if that could have happened to anyone. Her congregation didn't hold it against her.

Mindy graduated from HUC-JIR and was invested in 1978. Her first congregation was in West Hempstead, New York. To get there from where she lived in Manhattan, she took the train, which let her off within walking distance of the synagogue. She steeled herself and was determined that traveling would not be a problem. It took time for the congregation to come to grips with a blind cantor. Mindy said they were resistant to even give her a key. They were worried about intruders, or what would happen if she fell and injured herself. But, she needed building access to teach the B'nai Mitzvah students. In time, she did receive a key, and in the end, she was with the congregation for nine years. That congregation ended up merging with another, as many smaller congregations have done; so ended her first pulpit.

In her first congregation, she was everyone's 'granddaughter'. It was hard for some to acknowledge women as real cantors. One of the more humorous things she recalls was that congregants were not sure how to address a female cantor. Mindy remembers being called a ‘cantoress’, a ‘cantora’, a ‘cantorina’, and a ‘Hazzenet’. She says that on her birthday during the last year she was with this congregation, when they sang to her there was a pause... ‘happy birthday to.....’ and finally her name, ‘Mindy',’ was slipped in. Change is difficult in any profession!

One of the blessings for which Mindy was grateful was the computer. She worked with a rabbi who had an Apple computer, using it to make handouts for the congregation. Mindy realized that if she had a computer, she could get copies of the programs that she could read. She got her first computer in 1983, an Apple2 Plus. Blind people learned how to touch-type and often carried manual typewriters to class in order to take notes and do assignments. Today, the computer speaks to you as you type so that you know if you've made a mistake or not. Mindy has spent time talking to employers about the wonderful benefits of blind people using a computer. It is really a critical skill for blind people in the working world, opening up a whole new world. It has certainly helped shaped Mindy's life.
When asked about being a cantor when you are blind or with some other disability or limitation, Mindy says that it is a good career choice. Being blind, though, it takes her twice as long to do many things. There are not a lot of the texts she needs available in Braille. With physical disabilities, there are other challenges for which one has to learn to accommodate. Many synagogues are not wheel-chair accessible. Congregations, certainly in these economic times, do not often have the money to retrofit their facilities.

When asked about the future of the Cantorate, Mindy believes that today one must be able to do everything. The phenomenon of cantor as sole spiritual leader speaks to this belief. She believes that we may see a blending of roles into one position of rabbi/cantor, but hopes rather than that, as the economy improves, that congregations will re-embrace the traditional separate roles of both rabbis and cantors. She feels that being a cantor is still a good career goal, and is happy to see that more women are being accepted as cantors. She does caution those considering this career path planning to work full time, that it can be stressful on relationships. While we know that typically, a full time cantor works 60-70 hours a week, it is a way of life, and families need to be accepting of this. It is a worthwhile profession for a person who is dedicated to and passionate about the work. It certainly has proven that way for Mindy Jacobsen.