New cantor reaches for high notes at Oaklands Sinai

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Even before her bat mitzvah, Ilene Keys knew she wanted to be a cantor. She loved singing in the synagogue, and she loved Hebrew. "So it made sense to put them together," she said.

Her early interest in being a cantor led to years of religious study and musical training, but all that effort has finally paid off.

While her friends may still be mapping out their career paths, the 26-year-old Los Angeles native has landed a job as a full-time cantor. She took over the musical leadership at Oakland's Temple Sinai last month.

The 700-member synagogue chose Keys after conducting a nationwide search to replace Nancy Kassel, who recently returned to her native Atlanta to be with her family.

"We liked her whole personality, her intelligence, her relaxed, warm nature, and the feeling that she really would be able to work with all ages, even though she's young," said Mary Triest, who chaired the synagogue's search committee.

Likewise, Temple Sinai was the young cantor's first choice among the four or five synagogues where she interviewed.

"They were friendly, organized, they knew what they wanted," Keys recalled. "The search committee was very thorough."

Keys, who grew up in Encino and attended Stephen S. Wise Temple, was already leading erev Shabbat services and chanting Torah on the High Holy Days at age 13. In high school, she lived with her grandmother so she could attend Beverly Hills High School, taking advantage of the school's Hebrew classes and singing in its madrigals choir.

Like many high school singers, she thought about pursuing a career as a Broadway singer. But she wanted something more meaningful and financially stable.

Keys continued studying with her temple's cantor, Nathan Lam, then attended UCLA for a bachelor's degree in Jewish studies. She graduated in May from Hebrew Union College in New York City with a master's degree in sacred music.

Around that time, Temple Sinai began its search for a cantor to replace Kassel. As part of that process, the synagogue's search committee developed a personality profile of their ideal cantor — a profile that emphasized warmth and a knowledge of Judaism.

Through the American Conference of Cantors, the committee received more than 25 applications from every conceivable age group and background, Triest said.

After interviewing several candidates, the committee invited six to meet with committee members, to audition from lists of songs of various categories, and to work with children at the synagogue.

It was a time-consuming process for the congregation, which had hired Kassel four years earlier. "I didn't think we'd have to go through that again so soon," Triest said.

The cantor they eventually hired turned out to have come from Kassel's alma mater, Hebrew Union. That made stepping into the job a little easier than it might have been.

Kassel "was very organized. She left everything in great shape," Keys said. "I'd like to continue the effort to build the sense of community through song. They love to sing."

One change Keys has made, however, is to begin services with a niggun, a song without words.

"It helps set the mood, and makes the transition between the workweek and Shabbat…It gets people quieted down internally," Triest said.

Keys said she intends to pay a lot of attention to the synagogue's children. Though the members range widely in age, "this is a very young congregation, with lots of kids," she said. "They bring life to the congregation."