ACC Spotlight: Cantor Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz

Rachel Gottlieb Kalmowitz of Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Hills, MI

Tell us more about your Jewish upbringing.

I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was always one of the only Jewish kids in my class.  My family belonged to Temple Emanuel, the only Reform congregation in town, and we celebrated all of the major holidays, but not much more.  I did go to Sunday School and became a Bat Mitzvah, but left before Confirmation because I went to high school at a boarding school up north in Michigan - Interlochen Arts Academy. 
Because of the small Jewish community in Grand Rapids, it felt special to be Jewish and I always made sure that my public school classroom decorated for and talked about the Jewish holidays, as well as the Christian ones.  I do remember one time when I was little, walking through the mall and I wanted to go see Santa like the other kids.  So I got up to the front of the line, hopped onto his lap, and when he asked, “So what do you want for Christmas?” I said, “I’m not Christmas, I’m Chanukah!”  Santa gulped and then took a breath and said, “Oh! So, what do you want for Chanukah?”  That story is indicative of my Jewish life growing up.  Certainly, it was impacted by the culture around me, but I was aware of being different. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a singer?

I did. When I was 2, I started singing with Barbra Streisand records, and felt incredibly excited when I found out that she was Jewish.  At the age of 7, I started performing publicly in community theatre, in commercials, and in a group comprised of my dad on bass, our friend Dave Mayer on jazz piano, and myself, called “Rachel and the Rascals.”  I went through periods of time when I wanted to be on Broadway, at the Met, or, ultimately, a cantor, but I always knew that singing was a big part of my identity.

You started your career as a professional singer in New York. Share with us more about this time in your life.

I became a member of Actor’s Equity and AGMA, and performed in musical theatre, opera, and oratorio.  This work, however, was sporadic, and I did not make enough money to survive in New York on this alone.  Because I was a good sight-reader, I was able to get a lot of gigs doing professional choral work, but although I got to sing at some amazing places and with incredible conductors and musicians, this work never felt completely fulfilling for me. To make money, I also worked, consecutively, as a waitress, a temp at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and then, since I felt that I wanted to make people’s lives better, a licensed massage therapist.  After 9/11, it felt more difficult to be in New York.  As my roommate said a couple of months later, “Everyone in the US is aware of the terrorist attack on our nation, but here in New York, it’s as though it’s constantly tapping us on the shoulder as we look up and see the empty space in the sky where the towers should be.”  I started feeling like I had not yet found my path, and that piecing a life together with different jobs and without a real community was not what I wanted long-term, even though I loved (and still love) New York.

What made you choose the cantorate?

My first cantorial position felt almost like an accident.  I was at Eastman School of Music doing my undergraduate degree in voice, and I had a church job like all of my friends did. I also had many friends who were involved in the Inter-varsity Christian Fellowship, and few Jewish friends. I was feeling the need for a Jewish outlet and so I went to Sam Adler, who was head of the composition department at Eastman at the time (Happy 90th, Sam!), and asked him whether there was such a thing as a temple job. He laughed and said, “Yes, and in fact my Cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, is leaving and my congregation, Temple B’rith Kodesh, is looking for an interim Cantorial Soloist. You should audition.”  I did, and remained their soloist for three years.

After that, I had High Holy Day positions every year, as well as subbing for cantors everyplace I lived.  I always felt that if I decided that the life of a performer wasn’t for me that I would become a cantor.  And at a difficult point in my life in New York, after 9/11, after I was tired of auditioning and of feeling so replaceable, when I was craving community and purpose, I met Rabbi Daniel Syme from Temple Beth El at my grandfather’s funeral. Danny said that he had heard a lot about me since I had subbed for Cantors Gail Hirschenfang and Steve Dubov at Beth El, even functioning as the interim for a month between them, and he wanted to bring me home.  I suddenly pictured a life in Michigan, as a leader within a community, close enough to my mom for her to visit her (then imaginary) grandchildren on the weekends, and felt a sense of excitement at the path that I could see my life taking.  This was a way for me to use my talents in service of God and my community, to have financial stability, to be able to focus my attention on one job instead of many, to create meaningful relationships, to officiate in important events for congregants to whom it would matter that it was me - not just because of my voice, but because of who I had become to them.

You have been the cantor at Temple Beth El, Bloomfield Hills, MI, since 2004. What is your favorite part of the job?

I love my clergy team, and working together to make our congregation a place that fosters holy relationships - between clergy and congregants, among congregants, and between each of us and God.

I also love sharing Jewish music with my congregation in so many disparate ways; for example, adding meaning and spirituality to services, getting the youth choir excited about singing Jewish music, and bringing a sense of peace to someone who is ill.

What does being a cantor mean to you?

I consider my role as a cantor to be one of creating sacred moments for and holy relationships with my congregants, through my music, my words, and my humanity. I feel so grateful to do meaningful work that I love.  To be a part of a warm community, where I can have a positive influence on people’s lives. 

What are some of your goals moving forward?

Our tag line at Temple Beth El is “our spirit is growing,” and this is true.  I hope to do all that I can to help in its growth and the engagement of our members.  I would also really like to make some recordings, which, along with the relationships I continue to build, would be something tangible that will outlast my career.
I am so proud to be a member of the ACC Executive Board and a co-chair of the ARZA Clergy Council.  Through these and my involvement with AIPAC, I want to continue to expand my impact throughout the cantorate, our movement, and our people.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I take a ballet class, which I love, and wish that I had more time to devote to it.  I enjoy reading novels, watching movies, and spending time with my family.