Growing up in Scarsdale, New York, Elana Rozenfeld was mesmerized by her synagogue’s cantor, Jacob Mendelson. “I would imitate the Jewish sounds he would make in services,” she laughed. “I really caught on to the emotion in his voice; it was so moving.” Though she sang and mimicked his music to herself, she didn’t know at that point that she wanted to be a cantor. “I never thought a mere human like I could be a cantor; it wasn’t even in my head because Cantor Mendelson was a super star. It just didn’t seem possible that I could be anything like him.”
As an undergraduate at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she majored in theater, specifically, solo performances, doing a little bit of everything. Wrapped up in college life, Elana broke away from the observant Jewish background of her upbringing. “I was angry at Judaism. I wanted nothing to do with it. I didn’t understand why I had to follow so many rules or why my friends could eat Oreos and I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be different anymore.”
After 9/11, during her sophomore year of college, Elana realized that she felt lost. Her quest to feel grounded brought her to a Friday night Hillel service at NYU. “Instantly, I realized I was back where I needed to be,” she recalls. “I connected very deeply on a spiritual level to the rabbi there, and I became observant again.”
Right around the same time, Elana decided she didn’t care about theater enough to continue to pursue it. “I started to put the pieces together and thought maybe I should be a cantor. I had been singing since I was 16, I was observant again, and my voice was at a professional level from all the years of theater and music training.”
From NYU, Elana went to the Jewish Theological Seminary and after graduating, she spent two years in New York City at the Park Avenue Synagogue.
It was a vacation to Rockport she took with her husband that led Cantor Elana to fall in love with the North Shore and to find her current job at Shirat Hayam. “My role at Park Avenue Synagogue didn’t feel authentic to what I felt and understand that cantors should be. It was very formal,” explained Rozenfeld. “When I visited Shirat for the first time, I saw that Rabbi Baruch had given new life to the synagogue and really focused on this authenticity I was looking for,” she said before adding, “Rabbi B got it.”
This genuineness comes through in the music Rozenfeld sings to her congregants. To Elana, cantorial singing is akin to “painting a picture with a voice.” Though she was inspired by Cantor Mendelson’s traditional Golden Age of Cantorial Music singing style, it’s not the way she sings today. “In order for people to be moved, they have to understand the text and fewer people understand it anymore, so they don’t enjoy the traditional Chazzanut.”
From spending mornings listening to Jackson 5 tunes in preparation for Purim to getting to work with teenagers in the synagogue’s choir, there are many things Cantor Elana loves about her job. “Working with teenagers, many of whom I’ve known since they were children, I get to see them develop personally, musically, and Jewish-ly. I know that I’ve had a tremendous effect on them, and it’s by far one of the most powerful things.”
As a mother of two young children, she wonders if their Jewish journey will be anything like her own. “I would love for them to fully identify with Jewish tradition, and I do what I can to instill in them a joyous and deep connection to Jewish life. But if they choose to stray from this lifestyle at some point in their lives, I have to trust that their instincts are leading them in the right direction for them at that time,” explained Rozenfeld.
Her final thought is one that Cantor Elana offered as a personal observation, but it may be critical for the larger Jewish community as it struggles to adapt to rapid change. “Jewish observance, in my opinion, is not black and white, and it is not static. Some details of my own observance fluctuate and develop to this day. I hope that I can give my children the same space I give myself to find their own way.”