By Laura Porter
It has been a spring of ceremony and celebration for Cantor Rachel Reef-Simpson of Temple Emanuel Sinai in Worcester. In early April, she presented a closing recital at TES as her senior recital in fulfillment of her cantorial certification at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.
On May 4, she will be formally invested in New York as part of the first cohort to graduate from the new cantorial certification program.
The program permits those already working in the field to complete certification while also maintaining their professional commitments.
Dovetailing with that milestone will be her installation as Cantorial Soloist and Family Engagement Coordinator at Temple Emanuel Sinai on May 13.
The installation will be part of “an uplifting and joyous Shabbat worship service,” she says.
Cantor Ellen Dreskin, the director of the cantorial certification program, is coming from New York to install her and to help celebrate her graduation. Rabbi Valerie Cohen will speak, as will one of the synagogue’s co-presidents, Pamela Zinn or Jonah Cuker.
Appropriately, the service will be a “’Rockin’ Shabbat’” service featuring our Temple Emanuel Sinai band ‘The Shabbatunes,’ our Temple Emanuel Sinai choir and some special guest singers,” says Reef-Simpson.
A festive oneg celebration will follow.
“Cantor Rachel’s enthusiasm and friendly demeanor have made her an essential part of our congregational family,” says Pamela Zinn. “Her beautiful voice elevates our prayer experiences to a more meaningful level.”
Cantorial singing is a second career for Reef-Simpson, following ten years spent in musical theater. She taught voice and musical theater at Riverside Theatre Works in Hyde Park and also started two Kindermusik schools when her two sons were small.
In 1997, when she was asked to assist the cantor at Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, where she had been saying kaddish for her father, she began the shift to Jewish music. She took part-time positions at other congregations as well, teaching music and leading Tot Shabbat services.
To deepen her knowledge, she began cantorial studies at Hebrew College in Newton and received a Cantorial Arts Certificate in 2008. Though she was then unable to become an invested cantor because her husband was not Jewish, she worked as cantorial soloist first at Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin for five years and then as co-clergy and cantorial soloist at Temple Beth David in Westwood before coming to Temple Emanuel Sinai last July.
Singer songwriter Debbie Friedman played a key role in her path toward formal investiture.
Eight or nine years ago at Hava Nashira, Reef-Simpson sang Stephen Richards’ “R’tzei” a capella in a master class with Friedman, and Friedman asked her to sing it again, this time while she herself accompanied her on the guitar.
“It was a huge honor for me,” she says. After the class, she recalls, Friedman said to her, “‘Rachel, I don’t know what it’s going to take, but you have to become a cantor.’”
Within a couple of years, Reef-Simpson’s husband, Phil Simpson, converted to Judaism, the Jewish world lost Debbie Friedman to a far too early death, and the School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR was renamed to honor her.
At that time, it added a non-residential cantor certification program that, for the first time, gave Reef-Simpson a viable option to formalize her training.
Focused on distance learning with a weekly online component, coaching and intensive residencies every three months, the highly competitive new program was designed to allow people who were already working as full-time cantorial soloists to be certified as cantors without taking leave from their jobs.
A member of the first class of six, Reef-Simpson was able to participate while continuing to work in Westwood and, this year, in Worcester.
The confluence of events, she says, has made her feel as if Debbie Friedman were looking after her.
“I feel her spirit and her energy in all that I do,” she says simply.
Her new community at Temple Emanuel Sinai points to her own spirit and energy.
“Cantor Rachel continues to inspire our members with her music, her leadership, and most importantly, her neshama – her spirit,” says Rabbi Valerie Cohen. “Personally, I am grateful to have her as my clergy partner, as she brings new meaning to my own Judaism.”