Mary Rebecca Thomas, 33, is one of two cantors at Charlotte’s Temple Beth El. This is the busiest time of her year: preparing for the High Holy Days, which end Saturday with Yom Kippur.
In Reform Judaism, a cantor is typically responsible for the musical programming and for singing the liturgical prayers at services. But as a cantor, Thomas says, she does much more than music. Reform cantors are ordained. They oversee the training of b’nai mitzvah students, “marry people, bury people, and have all of the rights and privileges of clergy. We are full clergy partners.”
Thomas works primarily with young adults and families with young children. She started a group for young people called The Porch, whose success has received national attention.
Thomas grew up in a musical family: Her mother and grandmother are singers. She received her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in history and Jewish Studies, and drove to Charlotte – with her husband – from her May 2003 graduation. She worked as a student at Temple Beth El from 2003-2006, then went to seminary for five years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she studied at their Jerusalem and New York campuses. “That education is parallel to a rabbi’s,” she says. Thomas has been cantor at Temple Beth El since 2011.
Because the cantor made this sort of bizarre remark to me, it called me to pay attention to him in a different way. During the service, I remember sitting there and thinking, “Oh my goodness. If you’re a cantor, you get to do music and be Jewish for your job.” From that point on, two weeks shy of my 13th birthday, I realized these two things that were already the center of my identity – being a singer is on my hard drive; and my Judaism, which I also had a deep, deep sense of love for at that age … it’s been my plan ever since.
My daughter Johannah’s middle name is Ateret, and it means “crown.” This is a Hebrew word that is in the last verse of this liturgical poem. So every Friday night when I get to the last verse of this poem, and I sing this word, “crown,” there’s the intersection of a sort of mystical theological idea with the reality of passing things on to your own child. For me, that is a moment of deep connection to my past, to my future, and to things I’ll never understand.
So the idea of this story is that in our lives, we are supposed to be our best self. My hope would be that God would say, “Mary, you did the absolute best you could at being Mary.” And then give me a high-five.