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Meet Our New Cantor
A look at the life and times of Cantor Lance Rhodes

By Mike Winkleman

On Wednesday night, May 13, at a special congregational meeting, Woodlands overwhelmingly approved the appointment of the versatile, talented, smart, affable, resourceful, and experienced Cantor Lance Rhodes as Woodlands’ next cantor, starting on July 1.

Lance, who is 39, grew up near Daytona Beach, Florida, an area with, for Florida, a very small Jewish population. “Everyone knew each other,” Lance remembers, regardless of which temple you were affiliated with. Lance’s family—his parents, his brother, and his sister—belonged to a liberal Conservative temple, where there was only one clergy member, a rabbi who doubled as a cantor.

Lance, himself, grew up playing piano, guitar, and clarinet, and joined his family every summer at Daytona’s Seaside Music Theater, where they all not only enjoyed the shows but pitched in where they could to help those productions succeed.

The theatrical influence stayed with him, as he took on such roles as Danny Zuko in Grease and Captain Hook in Peter Pan in high school and as the butler in Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Performing Arts Center in Ormond Beach.

So much musicality—and musical talent—in his life led him to the inevitable conclusion that he wanted to pursue a career in music. But, given that he hadn’t yet been exposed to an actual full-time cantor, the cantorate wasn’t yet on his radar.

In following his musical dreams, however, Lance realized that he needed something more secure than performance to fall back on, so he enrolled at the University of Miami with a major in music business and entertainment industry. This gave him the opportunity to study composition, music technology, and even music therapy. It was a way, he says, “to expand the possibilities that were available.”

While a student at Miami, Lance not only taught piano, directed choirs and bands, led services at Hillel, and composed soundtracks for both student films and vigils commemorating 9/11, but he also sang in two a cappella groups with a repertoire that was primarily Jewish music. One of these groups had a gig at a Cuban synagogue in South Beach, where they sang in Hebrew, Spanish—and Ladino.

This experience showed him that, as Lance puts it, “I could combine Judaism and music and do what I wanted to do from my own heritage.” Having grown up in a Conservative temple, a Conservative seminary seemed like the logical training ground, so Lance applied to and was accepted at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City—JTS, the same seminary where Cantor Jonathan did his training.

But first, before enrolling, Lance needed to check one more thing off his bucket list. So, he took a short-term job teaching music to kids on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas—and performing in one of the ship’s show bands.

Leaning Toward Reform

Lance’s five years at JTS provided him with, as he notes, “a great education, wonderful teachers, and an expansive repertoire”—as well as the chance to play Hugo in the JTS production of Shalom, Birdie. After being invested as a hazzan in 2009, he took a job as cantor at Congregation Brith Shalom, a Conservative temple in Houston, and stayed there for six years. Still, the differences between the Reform-leaning Conservative temple at which he grew up and the more Conservadox approach to which he was exposed at JTS were not lost on him. He began thinking that maybe the Reform cantorate was where he belonged.

In the meantime, at Brith Shalom, he taught B’nai Mitzvah students, led a 30-member choir, created a well-received new Rosh Hashanah second-day service, and developed participatory services with names like Friday Night Ruach and Rock Shabbat. And, as Janice Rubin, one of the temple’s “service and music leading partners,” said, “I’m sure that his talents actually helped us increase membership.”

In 2014, ready to explore the Reform Movement further, Lance prepared for the extensive testing, performance, and interviewing that the American Conference of Cantors requires of hazzanim invested through other movements who want to become Reform cantors. Having passed all that, Lance took a job as the interim senior cantor at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, working with Rabbi Josh Davidson who had moved from Chappaqua’s Temple Beth-El a year earlier. Rabbi Davidson’s charge was to take a very traditional classic Reform temple and modernize it, without alienating the old-timers. That charge was passed on to Lance as well, and, as Davidson has said, “he just got it!”

For Lance, too, Temple Emanu-El was a great experience. He worked with B’nei Mitzvah students, created a number of singing groups, and, according to Rabbi Davidson, got the congregation engaged in singing in ways that hadn’t been done before. Having far exceeded the temple’s expectations for an interim cantor, Lance was permanently listed by the temple in its historic list of clergy and as one of its composers.

When the interim period ended, Lance decided to take a year off and return to Florida. It was a productive year. He assembled and ran a choir that sang at various Daytona-area temples. He coordinated both teen and adult programming and officiated at a number of lifecycle events. And he served as the emcee at the Jewish Heritage Festival in Ormond Beach. As Barbara Steinberg, the festival’s entertainment chair, recalls, Lance not only took seriously a job previous emcees had run by the seat of their pants, captivating the audience with his well-researched introductions of the various performers, but also successfully evacuated performers and attendees when a tornado suddenly threatened.

Coming to Woodlands

After that year, Lance was again ready for a full-time pulpit, so he applied through the ACC, looking for a job that would provide him with the creative and collaborative opportunities he’d learned were critical for him. That eventually led him to what, arguably, is the most creative and collaborative pulpit he’s likely to find: Woodlands Community Temple.

Lance’s interviews with the Cantorial Search Committee, thanks to coronavirus, took place entirely through Zoom. Nonetheless, his effervescent personality, his eclectic approach to musical sources, his resourceful, even iconoclastic treatment of what might otherwise be standard material has come through clearly, starting with his initial Zoom interview. He taught us about the history of Reform music during his learning session, stressing the ways in which Reform music has moved toward a fusion of folk music, Chazzanut, and Nusach, and engaging the committee—again via Zoom—in a very interactive session.

His model service showcased not only a firm grasp of liturgy but a tremendously wide range of musical influences. Accompanying himself beautifully on the piano (his guitar hadn’t made it out of Temple Beth Hillel before the pandemic locked him out of the building), he played an original version of Lekhah Dodi, full of musical references to a Bach waltz, particularly evocative for a prayer celebrating the Sabbath bride. His Mi Chamocha was set to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Other composers he drew from ranged from the 19th century Austrian hazzan Salomon Sulzer to Rick Recht, Craig Taubman, and Elana Jagoda, a rising star in the Reform Movement’s musical firmament, known for fusing Shabbat liturgy with hip hop beats. This range of musical approaches also allowed him to use what are his two very distinctive voices—a contemporary, sing-along style and a formal, stirring, classical baritone. His d’var Torah was equally thought-provoking, as he addressed the importance of overcoming obstacles to critical communication during the pandemic by tying together Moses’s difficulties with speech, the film “The King’s Speech,” the role of cantillation, and the unselfish devotion of doctors and nurses.

Lance says that Woodlands reminds him of the warm, intimate, community-based temple at which he grew up. Coming here, he says, feels like coming home. And the creativity, the sense of energetic collaboration—with both clergy and members—he knows he’ll find here is firmly in line with what he’s trying to achieve professionally. “I am searching for my congregational b’sheret,” Lance wrote in his personal statement. “If you are interested in a cantor who brings a collection of unique talents, musical creativity, and variety, energy, and spirituality, and is very personable, then I ask that you please consider me for your congregation.”

Lance’s references were unanimous: “I’d hire him in a minute,” said Rabbi Josh Davidson. “If I were on your committee, I would hire him in a heartbeat,” said Janice Rubin. “This sounds like a match made in heaven,” said Barbara Steinberg. Clearly, the congregation, agrees.

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780