Skip To Content

When the Organist Is Episcopalian

In synagogues around the country this month, musical directors will lead congregations in the songs and melodies of the Days of Awe. Like their congregants, they will be moved by the prayers and are likely to feel the electric moments of High Holy Days services.

Unlike most congregants, however, they may not be Jewish.

“It seemed as if I was standing at Sinai as Moses,” Jody L. Kidwell recalled of her first time as a Lutheran soloist singing “Avinu Malkeinu” at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia. She was introduced to the synagogue years before as a student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, when a friend asked Kidwell to fill in for her at a choir gig.

“I knew that something was happening to me. I was able to open myself up and be a conduit,” said Kidwell, 47. That moment on the bimah was one of the experiences that lead Kidwell to convert to Judaism. She’s now served for 11 years as cantorial soloist at the Reform synagogue.

Though most soloists, musical directors, choir leaders and organists working in synagogues this month probably won’t have a revelation on the order of Kidwell’s, a number in Reform congregations will in fact not share the faith of worshippers. Though authorities from the Reform movement agree that the role of the cantor, as one who represents the congregation and prays to God, preferably should be filled by a Jewish person and one who has completed cantorial training, there is a calculus that cannot be ignored: Synagogues have plenty of musical needs, and musicians are on the lookout for places to use their training.

As professionals, these non-Jewish hired musicians all agree that the first order of business is to present the music tunefully, correctly and well. As religious (or even nonreligious) people, however, their spiritual experience of the High Holy Days differs.

Carol Tate is a Presbyterian minister and a classically trained organist and choral conductor whose year simply would not be complete without the several weeks she spends leading, rehearsing and performing with the High Holy Days volunteer members’ choir of Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tenn.

“It’s an important time of year for me to be at prayer with my friends at Congregation Micah,” said Tate, 51, who grew up a “little Baptist gal” in Kentucky and then became Presbyterian and graduated from Vanderbilt University Divinity School in 2000.

“I have a deep respect for Judaism and understand clearly that Christianity emerged out of that. I find my work to be just in many ways a natural extension of who I am as a person and one who worships God,” she said. “We are always glad when that time comes for us to be together again. They love to sing, and they love to sing with me. They know that I care. So that all works, and there’s not a divide.”

Part of the closeness comes from Tate’s friendship with Rabbi Kenneth A. Kanter, whom she first met when she approached him for help in pronouncing the Hebrew in a piece her church choir was rehearsing, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Kanter was in the process of founding Congregation Micah, a Reform synagogue, and asked Tate to bring over her choir for a performance. Although today the synagogue employs a Jewish cantorial soloist, at the High Holy Days when the soloist is on the bimah she can’t also play organ and piano and lead a 25-member choir at the same time, Kanter said. That’s where Tate comes in.

The friendship is such that Micah once honored Tate at an Oneg Shabbat, and Tate plans to involve the congregation in the opening of her new church.

Allen Sever is beloved by the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, the Reform congregation in New York City where he has been music director and organist for 43 years, but he’d rather talk about music than religion. A “nominal Episcopalian,” Sever also has served in the same roles at the West End Collegiate Church for 48 years. He mentions that there’s religious crossover there, too, with Jewish singers in the choir of the Protestant church.

“It’s been very satisfying over the years. I was exposed to the best in Jewish music,” Sever, 75, said of his tenure at the synagogue, which also employs a full-time cantor. “First of all, it has to be a musical experience. I would approach it primarily as a musician, and the theological content I approach with a great deal of seriousness and respect. I’m simply hired to present the music in the best possible way that I can.”

Not all movements permit non-Jewish musicians and instrumentalists to participate. The Reconstructionist approach is similar to the Reform movement, offering guidelines for which prayers should be led by Jews and which may be led by non-Jews, while leaving the final decision up to individual congregations. The Conservative movement has specifically said that all choir members should be Jewish. Orthodox services on occasion include an all-male choir, never involve instrumental accompaniment and often use laymen, who would be Jewish, as leaders of sung prayers, said Rabbi Mayer Waxman, director of community services for the Orthodox Union.

And even within those movements that permit the presence of non-Jewish choir members and instrumentalists and even soloists, the issue has caused curiosity, if not mild apprehension.

“How can someone from a different faith tradition experience the holiest moments of the Jewish year and not adhere to the tenets of the faith?” asked cantor Alane Katzew, director of musical programming for the Union of Reform Judaism, who says she recently put that question to a non-Jewish member of the URJ’s Guild of Temple Musicians.

“The member said because Christianity originated with Judaism, they feel very comfortable engaging in practically all matters involved in synagogue liturgy, particularly when it’s biblical text,” Katzew explained.“I found that a very positive answer.”

Karen Loew is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker.

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.