ACC Spotlight: Cantor Rosalie Boxt
Cantor Rosalie Boxt is Director of Worship at the URJ
Tell us about your Jewish background growing up in St. Louis?
My family was actively involved in Reform Jewish life when we lived in Sunnyvale, CA, before we moved to St. Louis, and in St. Louis, as well. We belonged to Shaare Emeth (where my classmate and dear friend Seth Warner is cantor), and Cantor Ed Fogel z”l was my cantor. I sang in his Junior choir, I sang on an album he made with his adult choir as a young child, I was active in my youth group and teaching religious school music, and was very involved in NFTY – Missouri Valley and Goldman Union Camp. My sister is a rabbi, and she married a rabbi, so my house and family life was focused on our engagement with Reform life in all its facets.
What led you to become a cantor?
My time as a child with Cantor Fogel was incredibly meaningful, and I sang through my years at temple. I also focused on songleading in NFTY and at GUCI, but I never truly thought about being a cantor until after college. My love of Cantor Fogel was deep, but he was my only model, and I assumed that cantors had to have huge glorious voices and have opera backgrounds – I didn’t know any different. At the University of Pennsylvania, I was a Jewish Studies major and spent a lot of time in the theatre; I thought I might do something in the communal service space or continue to songlead – but my path wasn’t at all clear. After college, I was hired by the then UAHC (now URJ) Youth Department to live and work full time at Kutz Camp in an internship program. I worked for NFTY in Israel and EIE programs as an administrator, and did a lot of songleading for URJ Board retreats and local New York and New Jersey synagogues that came to Kutz for weekend retreats. I also was there as songleader in the summers – it was during the summer of 1995 that I met Cantor Ellen Dreskin and Cantor Benjie Schiller. I hadn’t known, until I met them, that cantors could be like me – with a more folk style of singing and leading, who were women, who love camp, love creating communal singing moments, and love teaching bible, and text – things that didn’t involve the voice. I knew as soon as I saw them as faculty at Kutz Camp that this was my call.
You were a cantor at Temple Emanuel in Kensington MD. What are you most proud of from your work at Temple Emanuel?
I was the cantor at Emanuel for 16 years. It was an extraordinary place to be right out of school for so many years. My rabbinic partner treated me always as an equal, and had a wonderfully tzim-tzum (pulled back, to make space) attitude about how I could grow and create on my own. There is also a very strong lay-led culture and I saw the value of healthy living for clergy, because of strong lay commitment for the community. I’m most proud of adding to the singing the community already was engaged in from previous cantors, of bringing a strong commitment to music and community building around social justice, and of using worship to model how we can truly be an open tent to people from all backgrounds. In using diverse communities of musicians, including a strong lay instrumental ensemble and a large volunteer choir who rehearsed every week with me as conductor – we created a community that celebrated with singing, that used singing to agitate, to create safety and harmony, and to express our willingness to challenge ourselves to look beyond our assumptions about what it means to be a Jew in our community. I am especially proud of 11 years of a women’s retreat with 50 women, and of creating a group committed to the prevention of gun violence.
As a leader for both URJ and the ACC, you have worked hard to bring about positive change in the Reform movement. Currently, you’re serving as URJ’s Director of Worship and Music and Biennial Worship Director – and for the ACC you served as the past Vice-President for Member Relations and now are ex-officio on the Executive Board. Why is leadership so important to you? What instigated you to become so involved?
I was motivated to get involved immediately upon my ordination in 2001. I had been active in leadership while in the DFSSM and cared deeply about cantors. I loved my time at the college, and I love supporting colleagues, and while I’m an introvert, I love group process, collaborative process, team work. I was on the youth committee (tapped by Cantor Joel Colman), and then moved onto the board at large, and then as a VP. I am passionate about how we support our members, in all our rich variety, in all the ways we serve the Jewish community and create relationships with people who are on life-long journeys for themselves and their families.
Because of my time working for the URJ as a young person, and my work with Hava Nashira and some national songleading and worship programs over the years, I am equally passionate about our Movement. I feel truly blessed to bring my two deep loves together in new ways during this stage of my career. I continue to work with our ACC leadership and colleagues to find ways to support them and create meaningful links to the movement, and to help our URJ continue to see cantors as the strongest of partners in the work of Reform Jewish life. My ACC colleagues, Cantor Jodi Schechtman and so many presidents of the ACC, have built and nurtured this relationship, and I am honored to help partner to keep it fluid, nimble, loving, and strong. Together we can build relevant and effective congregations thriving now and for the next generation contributing to a world of compassion, wholeness and justice.
My work as the Director of Worship at the URJ includes thinking about worship at all our national events, working with the ECERJ and Families with Young Children team on Tot Shabbat resources and beyond, working on our Reform Judaism website content of blessings and prayers and music for our visitors, working in all aspects of the Strengthening Congregations team particularly with the clergy of the Transitions and Consulting group, as well as creating Active Learning Networks for congregation worship committees. And of course I’m already working on pieces for the next Biennial 2019! I’m dreaming with our Youth team of new ways to support young songleaders and how we teach worship and music at our camps and in NFTY, how the RAC provides worship experiences, and considering new ways to partner lay and professional in the creation of meaningful worship and music experiences across the movement.
You helped launch a non-profit business called Kesher Shir. What is this?
Kesher Shir brings together Jewish musicians from a variety of backgrounds and stages in their work, to study, compose, build relationships, and challenge the status quo, in order to foster lasting musical change in communal prayer. The program’s focus is retreat-like collaboration between singer-songwriters and cantors over a period of years, particularly around the creation of new musical forms for contemporary synagogue worship. This began as a dream to bring my dearest cantor friends (Cantor Richard Cohn, Benjie Schiller, Andrew Bernard) together with my dearest composer friends (Dan Nichols, Debbie Friedman z”l, Rabbi Ken Chasen) to just spend days together creating, dreaming and composing just for the sake of the collaborative experience. Very little usable music came out of my first years of a national Cohort!
The Boston cohort wrote a ton and had a blast. All but one of my Boston cohort were at the Biennial! It was so gratifying to see them all connecting, to know that some of the songs they are writing and performing were written in partnership, and to hear that the cantors and singer songwriters still gather, still share with each other and in each other’s communities and find their work of collaboration to be strengthening and supportive of the work they continue to do.
New cohorts of the program are now on a temporary hiatus while I assess what’s next for the program and for my work.
These days you’re mentoring cantors and consulting congregations on the issue of worship and music. Why is mentoring important to you? What kinds of consulting projects that you’ve been working on would your community of cantors like to know about?
I love working with my ACC colleagues and am always humbled when cantors reach out to anyone to grow in their own work, to challenge themselves in new areas, and to ask for support. I have friends and colleagues who mentor me in so many ways! Cantors sometimes call me asking for feedback, or worship observation, or troubleshooting when working to help their congregations’ deepen their communal singing experiences, or partnering with other clergy to talk and dream about worship. I sometimes work with clergy teams, a cantor and rabbi, to create new language to think about talking about worship. I don’t feel strongly about how all our clergy choose to lead, or the choices they make in worship – every congregation is different.
What I do try to help clergy consider, often in sacred partnership with lay membership, is how are your worship goals and visions crafted? What is the “why” you are starting with? What kind of pray-ing congregation are you? Are you hoping to build? Does the congregation think it is? By helping cantors, or clergy teams, or congregations as a whole re-think how they talk about, message, and dream about worship, the more successful I think communities will be to create dynamic worship that works for them. No one style, or “new melody”, or neat idea is going to make worship soar. But when a group of people are traveling on the same worship path with a clear idea of what it’s all about, then worship can be deeply moving and highly transformational.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love, particularly now that my weekday evenings are mostly free, spending time with my 13 and 11 year old daughters – I do a lot of hair straightening, watching TV with them, just listening to them whine, and laugh, talk to their friends, do homework. I enjoy watching TV or going to the movies with my husband Jason (whom I met at Kutz camp!), on those rare occasions we both don’t happen to be traveling. I like reading, and I have recently begun to run and I’m loving that. My family is one of the reasons I chose to make a shift in my professional life; my husband Jason has supported all of my work in synagogue life and now at the URJ – as I travel, create, re-imagine and dream. He’s an amazing partner and it’s an exciting time for me!