For the first time since its founding in 1866, Little Rock's Congregation B'nai Israel has hired a student cantor to help lead its sacred music on an ongoing basis.
Aleksandra Dubov, a second-year student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, will be traveling to central Arkansas every three weeks, on average, during the 2023-24 school year to help the Reform temple enhance its musical offerings.
It's a step forward that Rabbi Barry Block welcomes.
"We've had visitors for one week at a time, but we've never had a sustained cantorial presence before," he said.
Jana Cohen, the temple's music committee chair, said B'nai Israel has relied, for the most part, on volunteers over the years.
"A cantor brings a lot of professionalism and knowledge to the position. There's a lot of new melodies and things that they know that we don't always know," she said.
Dubov, Cohen said, is a welcome addition.
"She's already been here once, and her voice is gorgeous, and her demeanor is very welcoming and inclusive," Cohen said. "We're really excited to have somebody every three weeks that helps the volunteers not have to carry the load of doing all the music at the services."
The word "cantor" comes from the Latin "cantor" -- meaning "singer."
But a cantor, in the Jewish tradition, is much more than a song leader.
"A cantor is a full member of the Jewish clergy who is specially trained in Jewish music but not only trained in Jewish music," Block said. "In other words, a cantor is also trained in the fullness of Jewish texts, the Torah and all of its interpretive tradition, as well as trained in pastoral care and community leadership. The cantor in larger congregations is the rabbi's primary clergy partner in leading the congregation at all levels. And specifically, he typically serves as the key soloist for all services."
Dubov, who studied voice and theater at Indiana University, is the daughter of the late Stephen Dubov, a cantor who served congregations in New Orleans, Bloomfield, Mich., and Boca Raton, Fla.
Aleksandra Dubov started leading Jewish prayers and songs when she was 13, her website states.
In Little Rock, her official title will be E. Lee Ronnel Student Cantor.
"We're just so blessed that we now have this E. Lee Ronnel Fund for Cantorial Music that enables us to bring the student cantor and also ... musicians to enhance our worship experience," Block said.
Ronnel, who died on Jan. 29, 2022, was a longtime temple member and gave generously to B'nai Israel, the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and a variety of other charitable organizations.
It takes five years to complete the cantorial program at Hebrew Union College; this is her second year. Dubov spent her first year studying in Jerusalem.
The role of a cantor and a rabbi are distinct, she said.
"A rabbi brings a little bit more of the laws and the rules and the wisdom," she said. "A cantor is the one responsible for music, for bringing ... Jewish connections in the emotional and musical and spiritual realms."
On her first visit, the temple held a Shabbat dinner to welcome her.
"I got to meet a lot of the congregants up close," she said. "They're just so loving and so nice, and I'm so excited to build a community with them."