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Cantor Kohn to become first career interim cantor

During Sukkot, Cantor Sharon Kohn teaches Isabelle Bernstein the festival prayers. Isabelle is the daughter of Steve and Aimee Bernstein and Cindy and Michael Scot Salmon.

After 14 years at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, Cantor Sharon Kohn will be leaving on June 30 for a groundbreaking position as intentional interim cantor at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. B’nai Jehudah will say goodbye to her during erev Shabbat services on June 9.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has ever done this,” said Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, senior rabbi at B’nai Jehudah. “This whole notion of interim is common in the rabbinate but it hasn’t been intentionally in the cantorate. Cantor Kohn will be doing this for the very first time and as so many other things that she’s done in her life she’s a trailblazer in this. I’m very excited for her; I think she is going to do a fabulous job.”

Cantor Kohn was the first woman cantor in the state of Texas and in Cincinnati in 1997. She also was an interim cantor in New Orleans in 1990.

Rabbi Nemitoff said Cantor Kohn’s job will be to help the Baltimore congregation do the transitional work they need in order to figure out what they want in a cantor and how to do that, “in the same way the rabbi at Congregation Beth Torah did for two years. It’s a cool position.”

To be an intentional interim cantor or rabbi requires you to go to school and become credentialed. Cantor Kohn said in the training process Moses is used a lot as a role model because what you’re doing is getting everybody from Egypt ready for the Promised Land.

“I’m very excited to be kind of testing the waters,” she said. “It feels good to be trying something that will be good for congregations and good for specific cantors who are trained to do it, which means it’s good for everybody.”

For the past three years, Cantor Kohn has served as chesed/pastoral care director after taking four units of Clinical Pastoral Education. She took the position in pastoral care, scaling back her pulpit work, out of the congregation’s need for more care. It was felt she would be good at it because she was already informally conducting that kind of work as a cantor.

“I was really pleased to be asked to do something that hasn’t been tried in very many congregations, if any, in the country,” she said. “I think we’ve accomplished some of the goals we set out to do, not all of them because I don’t think one ever does. I’ve been really honored to do this sacred work.”

When funding ran out for this experimental program, she made the decision to become a full-time interim cantor.

She said in CPE training there is some overlap with interim work. In pastoral care, you guide people who are in need, in crisis or in severe straits with their family. You help them get from where they are to where they want to go in a way that is the most comforting and most efficient, and help them clarify what that is.

The same is true of an interim cantor — she will guide the congregation from where they stand now to where they are going and be ready and open to embrace whatever will be when they get their new settled cantor. Her term as interim is one year.

“You’re going to have different things wherever you go that you’re an interim, but that’s the job,” said Cantor Kohn. “I have never intentionally done this interim work before; I’ve done it informally, but never intentionally. What’s going to happen a year from now, I don’t know.”

She does know she will no longer be at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation because as an interim cantor you take yourself out of the running to be the new cantor.

“You can’t be gunning for the job and help people through the process at the same time,” she said. “You’re either taking care of them or you’re taking care of yourself. That part of it I’m especially excited about because it means it’s real clear what I’m supposed to be doing — being there for this congregation.”

If Cantor Kohn continues as an interim cantor it will mean lots of moving around, which she said she doesn’t think she’ll mind.

She laughed as she said, “Ask me in five years.”

“We’re keeping home base here in Kansas City, so we’ll see what happens. I’m open to the adventure. But this is our home and we look forward to being here, we just don’t know when or how.

“I feel incredibly grateful to the entire Kansas City community for embracing me immediately and sharing so many things with me. There have been births and marriages and B’nai Mitzvah and unfortunately deaths and we’ve shared those together.”

The cantor at Baltimore Hebrew had been there for nine years. Cantor Kohn said everyone loved him, but it was time for him and his wife to retire. So the congregation is using this year to take a deep breath, sit back and figure out what they want in their new cantor, which she said is a smart thing to do.

A second cantor at Baltimore Hebrew does most of the B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, but Cantor Kohn will be working with her, helping educate the children and officiating at services where they come of age.

“I’m so excited to have wonderful cantorial colleagues in the Baltimore area and especially Reform cantorial colleagues,” she said. “I’ve had wonderful colleagues here, but no active Reform cantors.”

Cantor Kohn came to B’nai Jehudah on July 1, 2003, the same day Rabbi Nemitoff and Rabbi Neal Schuster started there. She and her husband Rick Simon have been to Baltimore before and she said they’re looking forward to exploring and getting to know a new area.

“I intend to like it there. Jewishly, it’s a rich, rich city amidst lots of congregations and other things,” she said. “It’s beautiful; the Chesapeake’s there, D.C. is there, getting to Philadelphia is easy, getting to New York City is easy. So who knows?

“You never know where life is going to take you, whether you think it’s beshert or kismet or you float down the river and end up where you end up or whether it’s God’s hand in all of it — however one chooses to see one’s life. I feel really blessed.”