At Walnut Creek shul, the cantor is now the rabbi, too

Jennie Chabon recently joined a rather exclusive club. To become a member, you simply have to be a cantor who goes on to become a pulpit rabbi. That she did — and she didn’t even need a change of address.

Chabon, 43, the cantor at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek since 2004, was ordained as a rabbi by the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles earlier this year, making her the Reform synagogue’s full-time rabbi and cantor. She replaces Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman, who joined the staff in 2014 and has now accepted a pulpit position in New Jersey.

As much as she has loved the role of cantor, Chabon is excited about the prospects of her expanded role.

“I was 10 years into my pulpit life,” she recalled, “and I really wanted to start learning again and grow my potential as a leader. I had already stepped into more pastoral roles, and I think the natural next step is rabbinical school. I was thirsty for the knowledge I didn’t get [in becoming a cantor].”

The rabbi-cantor double isn’t common, but it isn’t unprecedented, either. Locally, for example, Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El in Aptos went from cantor to rabbi at her synagogue 15 years ago. And at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Rabbi-Cantor Elana Rosen-Brown has been part of the clergy since 2014.

Chabon, who earned an anthropology degree from Columbia University, described her 300-member synagogue as “a kind, loving community that feels like home to the people who love it. The essence of the community is warm, grounded in a deep commitment to social justice, music and hopefully uplifting prayer.”

The Berkeley native hopes to amplify all of those qualities as she takes the helm.

During her time as a cantor, not only has Chabon served from the bimah, but she’s also recorded three albums of Jewish spiritual music with her band, Shir Joy, and performed at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley with her musical partner, Lisa Zeiler. For a sample, check out her extra-sultry performance of “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” on YouTube.

Now that she is her synagogue’s spiritual leader, the mother of three says she has some fresh ideas she hopes will expand B’nai Tikvah’s impact and perhaps bring in some new members.

One of them is Yoga Havdalah, a monthly program of yoga and chanting for which she teams up with a yoga teacher to bid farewell to Shabbat.

“We ground the yoga in a Jewish context,” she said. The yoga teacher “takes that and weaves it into yoga practice, and we do Havdalah together. We found it attracts a lot of people not synagogue affiliated.”

Another new program is a thrice-yearly feast of Jewish cooking, the first of which will be on Friday, Aug. 23. Each feast will feature a Jewish cuisine of a different Jewish community, from Morocco to Turkey to Israel. And of course, Chabon will sing.

While bringing a new vision to B’nai Tikvah served as part of the inspiration for Chabon returning to the seminary, the main reason was simple. She wanted to learn more.

“For me, it was a thirst for knowledge,” she recalled. “I felt I needed to learn more in order to teach more.”

She learned mostly via computer and made occasional trips to the Academy for Jewish Religion’s Los Angeles headquarters. The experience was as fulfilling as she had hoped.

“It just woke me up to so many pieces of myself,” Chabon said. “I got to dive into all the worlds of learning, with lots of text study, homiletics and all the things that make a rabbi a rabbi.”

With Rosh Hashanah approaching, the graduate of University High in San Francisco is ready to get the new year off to a good start. In addition to her new responsibility of delivering High Holiday sermons, she’ll no doubt lead the congregation in song, as well.

“I can’t imagine being on a bimah and not singing,” she said.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.