Temple Emanuel of South Hills hired its first full-time cantor in more than 50 years.
Cantor Kalix Jacobson (who uses they/them pronouns) joined Temple Emanuel at the start of July after being ordained in May at the Hebrew Union College in New York, but their path to being a cantor started with a bachelor’s in business and a friend’s tragic loss.
Jacobson was often told they would make a great cantor, and while they were earning their bachelor’s degree, a close friend suddenly lost her family. Jacobson, then 19, traveled to Chicago to help her figure out the next steps.
“She basically said to me, ‘You are very good at this. Have you considered ministry?’ And it was the first time I understood what people were saying when they told me I should be a cantor,” Jacobson said. “When this happened, from my vantage point, a cantor was a Jewish singer in the congregation, right? But obviously, cantors are much, much more than just music facilitators in communities.”
For Jacobson, being a cantor goes beyond a desire to help people — it springs from their genetics. Their grandfather was a singer and pianist who bought a ring for Jacobson’s grandmother by selling a song to a recording company. When you grow up with a grandfather who sings like Sinatra, Jacobson said, it’s only a matter of time before you pick up an instrument or two.
“I can’t imagine myself without music. I hear music in everything. There are things that happen where I’ll get a snippet of a lyric, and I have to stop everything and finish writing the song,” they said. “I don’t know what draws me to music because I can’t imagine a world in which I’m not drawn to music… It’s just something in my genetics.”
Jacobson’s musical history is about as vast as it can get. Theater, choir, all-state jazz, a cappella, indie folk songwriting and arranging all color Jacobson’s approach to being a cantor.
“There’s a lot of innovation going on and a lot of the focus in the Jewish world is about writing new and invigorating pieces,” they said. “I think we are fixing to see a real shift in what music is being sung in synagogues, at camps, in religious school.”
Jacobson said that their class at Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music’s was the first to have nonbinary or transgender cantors in any Jewish denomination, something they referred to as the “elephant in the room.”
“I think the biggest problem I run into as a professional who is trans is that people are afraid of doing something wrong,” they said. “As long as you are holding no maliciousness to me, I hold no maliciousness to you. I want to get to know people, I want to be your cantor, I want to be a confidant or a support or anything that you might need.”
A legacy gift from congregant Betty Diskin in memory of her husband, Arthur, and their sons William and Robert, allowed Temple Emanuel to expand its musical program by hiring Jacobson, who also will lead Torah studies, provide counseling and officiate at weddings and funerals.
“There’s a misconception about what cantors do,” Jacobson said. “When we’re in school, we learn basically everything that the rabbis do plus an entire canon of music. So, we’re not just musicians — in fact, the opposite. We’ve been trained to be full clergy partners with rabbis or, in some instances, spiritual leaders.”
Along with cantorial training, Jacobson has a master’s in nonprofit management from Hebrew Union College. Jacobson hopes to use that background in nonprofit management and fundraising to help Temple Emanuel in the future — but how that will happen remains to be seen, they said.
“What excited us about Cantor Kalix in particular was not just their amazing musical talent and voice,” Temple Emanuel’s President Michelle Markowitz said, “but also their passion for the Jewish future and community-building in that Jewish future.”
Rabbi Aaron Meyer echoed Markowitz’s praise of Jacobson’s passion for the Jewish future.
“Cantor Kalix combines an amazing musicianship with pastoral caregiving skills and an understanding of the future of Jewish communities,” Meyer said. “They also harbor a work ethic that breaks stereotypes about their generation, all of which is going to make them an amazing part of the Temple community.”
Sierra Fox, Jacobson’s friend and Temple Emanuel’s former student cantor, suggested the role to Jacobson. After speaking with Meyer, Jacobson was impressed with the relationships Temple Emanuel has with other Jewish and non-Jewish communities. ECDC, Temple’s Emanuel’s preschool, for example, is open to families of all faiths and backgrounds. Jacobson, 27, has more than a decade of experience teaching kids.
“[Meyer] mentioned that there were several Palestinian families who sent their children to the ECDC, and I was like, ‘OK, where do I sign?’” Jacobson said. “The fact that we were able to have the relationship we do with Israel and also the relationship we do with these Palestinian families meant a lot to me.”
And for Jacobson, being a cantor doesn’t stop at the Temple Emanuel’s doors.
“I’m here to be a community member, not just a Temple Emanuel staff member,” Jacobson said. “I moved to Pittsburgh because I care about Pittsburgh, and I want to be here. I want to be here for the community and I want to get to know you. I want to get to know anyone who is interested in getting to know me, for whatever reason, congregant or not.” PJC
Abigail Hakas can be reached at email@example.com.