In February, Cantor Rebecca Garfein of New York took part in a cantorial weekend at Temple Sinai in New Orleans. It looks like she will be staying a while.
On March 28, the congregation announced that Garfein will become their next cantor, succeeding Cantor Joel Colman, who is retiring this summer after 24 years with the congregation. Colman had invited Garfein and Cantor Steven Weiss of Boston for the weekend, which included a cantorial concert and Garfein joining him in the Shabbat evening service, where they concluded the service with “When You Believe” from “Prince of Egypt.”
Garfein was in the class ahead of Colman at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and they have been close friends ever since.
Garfein has been the first female senior cantor at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, where she served for 23 years. She also has an extensive stage career, including playing the role of “Fran Drescher” in Abigail Pogrebin’s musical, “Stars of David,” since 2016.
Being in New Orleans will be a return to the region for Garfein, who is a native of Tallahassee. Her father, Stanley Garfein, was rabbi of Temple Israel in Tallahassee from 1966 to 2001, and is featured at the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.
Prior to cantorial school, she graduated from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and while a student there, she was head songleader at Greene Family Camp, where one of the senior campers was Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Sherman.
She was ordained as cantor in 1993, becoming the first cantor at Riverdale Temple in the Bronx.
In 1997, Garfein was invited to participate in the Berlin Jewish Cultural Festival, and was the first female cantor to give a solo concert in the same city her grandfather had fled. A CD of that concert, “Sacred Chants of the Contemporary Synagogue,” was released soon after. At the 1998 Berlin Jewish Cultural Festival, she became the first female cantor to preside in a German synagogue.
In 2003, she made her debut at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in a concert celebrating the release of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s book, “Musically Speaking.” Westheimer would write the introduction to Garfein’s CD, “Golden Chants in America… Commemorating 350 years of Jewish Music, 1654-2004,” the first U.S. recording spanning 350 years of Jewish music in America.
In 2005, she made her Carnegie Hall debut at a benefit concert for the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, featuring Mandy Patinkin. She was also in a 2012 benefit with Neal Sedaka and Jay Black.
Garfein has been a featured soloist with the Ra’a’nana Orchestra and the Zamir Chorale at the Jerusalem Theater in Israel and at the 350th anniversary concert of the Curacao Jewish Community in Curacao. In 2016, she was featured at Congregation B’nai Torah in Boca Raton during their Best Divas of American Chazzanut concert.
During the Covid pandemic, she was one of 16 female cantors selected for a video recording of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
Temple Sinai President Ellen Cohen said Garfein’s “compassion, enthusiasm, talent and experience made her stand out as an individual who will be a wonderful addition to our Temple Sinai clergy team and an inspiring leader for our congregation,” and it was a unanimous decision by the search committee.
“Her broad musical tastes and talents, as well as her insights and passion, will add so much to everything we do here at Temple,” said Sherman.
Garfein said she is “overjoyed to join this wonderful historic congregation and be together for joys and challenges, to celebrate and to be there for life’s journeys. TThough we are leaving the New York area, we could not be more thrilled to join the Temple Sinai family and entrench ourselves in the culture of New Orleans.”
She will be joined by her husband, actor Alexander Hatzidiakos, and sons Max and Jake. Jake will have his bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai in September.
There will be a retirement party weekend for Colman from May 19 to 21, and Garfein will officially start on July 1. There will be meet and greet opportunities during the summer and fall.