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.
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Q. When did you know you wanted to be in the clergy?
A. I grew up in a very small congregation in New Jersey. At my Bat Mitzvah, before the service, the cantor said to me, “You know, you might not realize it now, but I just want you to know that it’s OK to be Jewish and named Mary. My mother was Jewish and named Mary, too.” I had yet to come in contact with what has been really a struggle through my professional life and especially my young adult years: having this highly atypical name for a Jewish person.
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.
Q. When you’re not doing ministry, where do you like to be?
A. Honestly, the only place on this planet where I feel removed from my identity as a Jewish spiritual leader is Disney World. It’s a completely escapist place. My family goes once a year.
Q. What person shaped your religious philosophy the most?
A. My theology and my sense of purpose as a Jewish professional were probably most influenced by the theologians Martin Buber and Eugene Borowitz.
q. What’s your favorite passage from a sacred book?
A. L’cha Dodi is a liturgical poem that is offered on Friday nights as we welcome Shabbat. It’s from the 16th century. It imagines the idea of Shabbat as a bride, and God and the people Israel in this text all sort of come together in this cosmic wedding in the moments before Shabbat begins.
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.
Q. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive?
A. There’s a story (about) this great Rabbi Zusia, and he was nearing the end of his life. And he was very upset. His students said, “Rabbi Zusia, why are you so upset? You are as great a teacher as Moses, you are an incredible scholar.” And Zusia says, “I’m not worried about whether or not God will say to me, ‘Why were you not even greater than Moses?’ I’m worried that God will say to me, ‘Why were you not more like Zusia?’ ”
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.