Zoe Jacobs: Sharing music with the masses

Susan Reuben meets the cantor changing the tune in the Reform community


This year, the Assembly of Reform Rabbis added a symbol and a word to the end of their name. They were “& Cantors”.

This may seem like a small change, but for Zöe Jacobs, cantor of Finchley Reform Synagogue, it has enormous significance. Cantor Jacobs joined FRS in 2009, becoming the only Reform cantor in the country, and has spent the past eight years developing music both in her own community and across the movement.

FRS now has a large and thriving choir, monthly, early-morning song sessions on Shabbat, a band-led family service, and a main service with a congregation that knows how to sing in harmony — so that visitors often think there is a choir in the room, even when there is not.

She has also instigated a biennial music conference called Shirei Chagigah, bringing people together to learn about song-leading and take the skills back to their own synagogues.

She sees herself very specifically not as a performer. “I think the most important task for any religious leader is to build community,” she says. “It’s essential to remember that you’re just a person like everybody else.”

She grew up in Muswell Hill, part of a musical family. “We used to sing round the table on a Sunday afternoon or while washing up. It makes us sound very Von Trapp-esque, but we weren’t!”

At 17, she went to URJ Kutz Camp in the US, the youth leadership camp of the American Reform movement. “I met a cantor there called Ellen Dreskin who told me what she did. And I thought, ‘this sounds like the greatest job in the world, but we don’t have cantors in England, so never mind.’”

Soon after Jacobs returned home, the American singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman came to lead a weekend of music in London. “It was like meeting the Beatles. That weekend, I bought every CD she’d ever made, and I lay in the lounge until 2 or 3 in the morning, working my way through them.

“It really lit a fire for me that something like this was possible in the UK, and that I needed to be able to bring it here.”

Friedman later became Jacobs’s teacher and friend, and led services with her at FRS the week before she died in 2011.

After a degree in Jewish history at Southampton University, Jacobs joined the cantorial school of Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), based in New York and Israel. Here she had “some of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had in my life,” including Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Merri Arian and Cantor Benjie Schiller.

The only potential flaw in her plan to become a cantor — some might argue that it was a major one — was that she very much disliked singing in front of people. “At no point did I say to myself, ‘This is a terrible idea! I hate singing in front of people!’ I just thought, ‘Oh well — they won’t make me do that scary stuff. I’ll just sing with people — I won’t have to sing for people.”

Then, on the High Holy Days at the beginning of her second year, Jacobs found herself the only cantor in the overflow service of Central Synagogue, New York — in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, with several thousand congregants.

“My face was being projected on to jumbotrons behind me so people could see me at the back.”

She realised that the only way to get through the service was to focus on the text and how she was using music to communicate it. “If it had been about performance, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she says.

To this day, that is the approach she uses. “If I can help people connect to text through the way that I sing,” she explains, “then I feel I’m allowed — that I have the right to be on that bimah.” She likens the music of a service to the soundtrack of a film: “If you have a film with no soundtrack, you’re unlikely to feel scared or angry or emotional. The minute that music comes in, it helps you understand the emotion you’re supposed to be feeling.”

Cantor Jacobs was offered a job at FRS when she graduated. “They were taking a huge risk, because no other Reform British community had hired a cantor. Most people didn’t even know what a cantor was.”

She attributes much of her success in the role to her working relationship with the shul’s Rabbi Miriam Berger: “It’s a partnership that is beyond my wildest dreams,” and also with Rabbi Howard Cooper, as well as the lay team: “I genuinely believe that my success here is a direct result of their unbelievable support.”

Given that she is currently the only cantor in the Reform Movement, strictly speaking the name of the umbrella organisation should be the “Assembly of Reform Rabbis & Cantor”. This position is soon to change, however, with Sarah Grabiner joining Radlett Reform Synagogue in 2019, and several others interested in following the same path.

For Cantor Jacobs, this is the ultimate success: “The reason I decided I would do this interview is in case anyone reads it and decides they’d like to know more about Jewish music, or says, ‘I’d like to learn more about being a cantor — I didn’t know it was a thing’. Because that is really a major part of what I’d like to happen in the world — it’s one of the things I’m most passionate about.”

Zoe Jacobs will be leading several sessions at this year’s Limmud

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