It's a long way from smoky nightclubs and cabaret songs, but Bogota, NJ, resident Lois Kittner has found her true calling when it comes to music at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel (RTBI). The temple lay leader will take on a new role as congregational cantor this year, debuting during the Jewish high holidays.
Kittner decided one morning three years ago to seek out a different kind of synagogue experience; she came to Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, and what she found there was more than she'd ever hoped for.
"Coming to RTBI was a natural progression of my constant search for Jewish education and singing," noted Kittner. "I've always loved being in the sanctuary because of the singing, even though as a little girl I couldn't read Hebrew and didn't know the words." Flash forward years later to her becoming one of RTBI's mainstay lay leaders and a ritual committee member. When the board asked her to take on an expanded role this year as congregational cantor, she jumped at it. "I realized I've spent the last twenty years preparing to serve this special congregation in this way," she said.
Kittner, a Bogota, NJ, resident, immediately found the spiritual home she'd sought for so long at RTBI; she joined and got involved right away. A former cabaret singer who had a New York City club act, her love of song is evident at every service she attends. "We have people who come to high holiday services just to hear Lois chant the haftarah," said Caryn Starr-Gates, a fellow ritual committee member. "It's an awe-inspiring experience, and her love of song and of what she's chanting really shine through."
Kittner says this is the culmination of a lifetime of self-teaching and learning from every rabbi she had the opportunity to work with. Before coming to Temple Beth Israel, she was also mentored by Paul Zim, the famous cantor and recording artist, with whom she harmonized during services at her former synagogue.
Beyond learning to read Hebrew, it was the chanting of torah and haftarah that Kittner set out to master, as she also gained fluency in the liturgy. The torah scroll does not have any vowels or cantillation marks to clue the reader.
"I became Bat Mitzvah twenty-one years ago, chanting my haftarah with my six-month old son on my hip. Since then, I've taught myself how to chant Torah and prepared both my sons for Bar Mitzvah."
Kittner has taught many other bar mitzvah students over the years and is now busy preparing six of the temple's Hebrew school students for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Two years ago she taught the haftarah cantillation and blessings to a group of adults, who shared the reading one Saturday morning. Her tutoring business is called torahlady.com.
When asked about her attraction to Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel, Kittner said, "Our congregation loves to sing and loves to learn about why we do what we do, as Jews. We are a curious, energetic group, very passionate about our Jewish experience." She looks forward to her new role, especially chanting the high holiday liturgy and melodies from a different perspective. "Over the years, people have suggested that I should be a cantor," she said. "I am truly following my bliss and I am excited to be embarking on this new adventure." No doubt the members of RTBI are singing a hallelujah chorus of their own as well.