December Spotlight: Cantor Laura Croen
Tell us about your Jewish upbringing.
I grew up in a Northern suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We belonged to Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun. My parents were quite involved at the temple—my dad served on the board and my mom seemed to always have a leadership position in the Sisterhood. My mom also was actively involved in Federation. We celebrated Shabbat every Friday night; our Shabbat candlesticks had mounds of dripped wax at their base. I loved my synagogue and being involved there. I found myself so moved by the beautiful, rich baritone voice of my cantor, Roy Garber, and loved to listen to him chant every time I attended services. It was at temple that I received my first role in a musical production and it was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof, when I was 10 years old. I also loved my summer camp. Camp Interlaken, a Jewish camp in Northern Wisconsin (Eagle River), was run by the JCC of Milwaukee. All of my friends attended, and my summers there were the best, first as a camper and then as a counselor. My camp experiences built even more connections for me to my Judaism. Again, it was the richness of the community experience and the music that spoke to me at camp.
What led you to become a cantor? Who are some of your inspirations and mentors?
I had no idea that being a cantor was an option for women. While I was in the midst of my graduate studies for a MM degree at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. when I was first introduced to the idea. The Cantorial soloist that had been singing at the local Reform Congregation, Temple B'rith Kodesh, decided to move to Germany to make his career. They always went to the Eastman School when they needed to hire a new Cantorial soloist. It was through family friends that belonged to B'rith Kodesh that I was encouraged to audition for the job. Even though I knew how to sing, I had zero experience singing in at a synagogue. Plus, they had never had a woman soloist before so I didn't expect to be hired. But I got the job and found that I absolutely loved working there as their soloist. I found that chanting at Shabbat and Holiday services resonated for me in so many meaningful ways. Even my voice coach remarked what a difference she heard in the quality of my singing. She could tell that I connected deeply to the liturgical music, to the Hebrew, in a new, much more personal and immediate way than I did with Italian, French and German art songs or with opera repertoire. My mentor at Eastman was Dr. Samuel Adler, chair of the composition department. He had been the music director at B'rith Kodesh, so he knew the synagogue and Jewish music well. I spent many hours meeting with him, asking his advice about the idea of studying to be a cantor. It was his encouragement that led me to my studies at The Debbie Friedman Sacred School of Music at Hebrew Union College and finally my Ordination in 1988.
What are some of the highlights of your cantorial career?
I have been fortunate to have had many highlights in my tenure as a cantor, first in my six years at Leo Baeck in Los Angeles and now in my 25 years at Temple Sinai in Washington, DC. At Leo Baeck, my first congregation after Ordination, I was hired as their first woman cantor. In my first two months I began and developed their first adult volunteer choir. While I was at the congregation, I had the honor of officiating at lifecycle events for many well-known people, including the marriage of Leonard Nimoy at whose ceremony I chanted the Priestly Benediction with the sign of the Kohanim (the Vulcan Salute from “Star Trek”). At my current congregation, Temple Sinai, Washington, DC. I was hired as their first ordained cantor in 1994. Among my highlights there, one of my favorites took place while President Clinton was in office. I was invited to come to the White House with a group of our Temple Sinai pre-school children, including my now 26-year-old daughter, to officially welcome in the holiday of Chanukah. We joined the President in the Oval Office where I spoke about the holiday’s significance, we sang Chanukah songs, lit the Menorah (on the President’s desk) and sang the blessings together. Then I taught President Clinton the rules of how to play dreidel, and with the children around his desk, we played dreidel! All this took place live across the world on CNN.
What do you love about being a cantor?
What I have been particularly moved by in my career is the intensity of being involved in the lives of my congregants for the full range of life-cycle events. It is quite extraordinary to be able to have a student who first sang in my youth choir, became Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and to then officiate at their wedding and even at the naming of their child. The experience of being a part of their lives at such meaningful touch-points moves me in new ways each time. Also, to have the experience of inspiring others to also pursue a career of becoming a Jewish professional has been quite gratifying.
What are some of your goals moving forward?
My goal moving forward is to keep my Cantorate fresh by learning new music trends as well as continuing to support the members of my congregation pastorally. I also plan to continue to be involved in social justice issues with my congregation and the Religious Action Center (RAC). Last spring, I was arrested for the first time in my career, demonstrating for the rights of Dreamers. I have never attended or been involved in more protests or marches in my life. Sadly, it seems there has never been as pressing of a need as there is today, to get out and make our voices heard.
What is on your workout playlist or podcast queue?
I work out every morning while watching Morning Joe (MSNBC) and/or CNN. And I take long walks daily with my dog with only the sounds of nature.