Meet Sydney, Jewish Cantor of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / August 30, 2023

Sydney and I meet on a muggy August day, searching each section of Arlington’s Northside Social for a spot with elbow room and a breeze. Over huge cups of cold brew, we chat about Sydney’s journey to the DMV, what she’s found charming about NoVA, the process of becoming a cantor, spicy food, and more!

Sydney smiles in TRS's sanctuary.

Via Lacey Ann Photography.

Samuel: Hi Sydney! Thanks so much for joining me today. To kick us off: What brought you to the DMV?

Sydney: I arrived in the DMV in July to become the Assistant Cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom. It’s an amazing synagogue, and really was my dream job. I wanted to be somewhere with a robust community and lots of people at different ages, stages, and interests. I came here, interviewed, auditioned…and it was just an immediate fit. 

Cantor Sydney's ordination at Temple Emanu-El. Samuel: What does the audition process to become a cantor look like? 

Sydney: To become a cantor, I went through a five year program at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. At the end of the five years, you go through a process of seeking out synagogues (and synagogues seeking you out). When I came to Temple Rodef Shalom, I spent basically 48 hours meeting as many people as I could: lay leaders, clergy, staff. I did a formal audition where I led some music in the sanctuary and worked with their team. I got to have meetings and meals with people who work at the synagogue, people who have been members for 50 years, members for 5 years. You get thrown in for 48 hours, and you see if it is the right fit. 

Samuel: What was the lightbulb moment where you realized: This is not just a synagogue that checks all the boxes, but also a community I want to join?

Sydney: The first night, members of Rodef 2100, our 20s and 30s group, took me out to dinner. It was so much fun – we went for Thai food. Everyone was so welcoming, and I was like: Okay, not only can I see myself living here and being the cantor here, but I see myself making relationships and connections in this community on a deep level. It was great to feel surrounded by friends very immediately. 

It’s also an amazing clergy team with a lot of longevity and passion. They live the values they preach about, creating community, and tikkun olam, and helping people to embrace Judaism in whatever way is meaningful for them.

Sydney onstage at TRS's welcome concert.

Via Lacey Ann Photography.

Samuel: What put you on the road to becoming a cantor

Sydney: I know a lot of people who come to the Rabbinate or become cantors who’ve wanted to do this their entire lives. I feel like my story is a little less traditional. I grew up very secular. We observed the holidays, but mostly at home. Living in New York, it was easy to be Jewish and be surrounded by Jews, so I didn’t feel like I had to “do” Judaism so much. But when I went off to college, studying opera and classical voice, I wasn’t feeling super fulfilled by what I was doing. I realized that I loved performing or families, getting to talk to people about what inspires them or why they enjoyed the music. I was like: I want to do that

Sydney at a synagogue in Morocco. When I came back to New York for a summer, I took a job in a synagogue, just as a temp in membership work. I loved working in Jewish life, seeing a community working together to take care of each other. When someone was ill or had a loss, I saw the way the community rallied together, and I thought maybe I wanted to be a more involved Jew.

When I returned to college, I started going to the Reform synagogue in my college town on Friday nights. I met the cantor, and she showed me how what a cantor did was like those family performances. You sing, but then you go and be with people, talk to people, connect with people. It doesn’t feel so distant, like performing on a stage felt to me.

When I wrote my essays to get into cantorial school, I realized that everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me to be a cantor. I just didn’t know it. 

Samuel: What are you finding particularly resonant in your personal Jewish life right now? How else has that changed over time? 

Sydney: I started my class in cantorial school as one of the least knowledgeable people that I knew regarding prayer, history, ritual – 

Cantor Sydney smiling. Samuel: If you don’t mind me asking, how did that make you feel in the moment? 

Sydney: It was hard. There were a lot of days where I was asking: Am I supposed to be here? Is this right for me? But, coming from a conservatory, with my opera background, I was strong in my music. My classmates and I really pulled each other up. We were able to exchange ideas and exchange help. There was no one left behind through those long five years. I got through, especially in that first year, with the help and encouragement and support of my classmates. 

I’m in a great place, now, to keep exploring what I find or don’t find meaningful. I went from not knowing basic liturgy to being able to daven an entire traditional High Holiday service at a Conservative synagogue. I’m really happy to be in my Reform community [at Temple Rodef Shalom] with a lot of influences from my background in Conservative prayer and liturgy. I’m always searching for balance and deepening different practices. 

Samuel: What have your impressions of NoVA and the DMV been so far? 

Sydney: I have to admit, I was resistant to leaving New York. I’m such a New Yorker; I didn’t have my driver’s license until I was 23. But I’m loving living in Arlington; it’s just a great community, and there’s always a lot going on. I love Northside Social, and my husband and I have been enjoying riding our bikes around the parks here. 

Via Lacey Ann Photography.

Samuel: I hear you love spicy food – any recommendations? 

Sydney: We’re trying a lot of different Thai places, looking for green curry; it’s important to me that it has a really good kick to it. So far my favorite is Sisters Thai in Mosaic…but if anyone wants to send me their recommendations, I would love that. 

Samuel: What’s something you’d want people reading this to reach out to you about? 

Sydney: I want to get into Pickleball. I’m sure I’m not very good at it, but it’s aspirational. But also, of course, Jewish music of all types. And, Law and Order: SVU. It’s my comfort show. 

Samuel: Where did the interest in opera come from originally? 

Sydney: I was a weird eight-year-old, being like: I wanna be an opera singer! But my Mom was a violinist for opera companies when I was growing up. I always loved to sing and perform, and she’d bring me along to rehearsals. I fell in love with the art form. 

Sydney conducting.

Samuel: Okay, a couple quick ones to close. You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they?

Sydney: I’d invite my great-grandmother. She was probably the last person in my family whose Judaism was similar to mine. I’ve always felt very connected to her, and I’d love to have her at my table. I’d also love Regina Spektor at my table. I love her music, and I think it has a lot of Jewish ideas. I’d love to talk to her and ask her what inspires her. It would also be really cool to learn from a cantor of the Golden Age, someone like Yossele Rosenblatt. Someone who could stick around and help me perfect my skills. 

Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence for me: When Jews of the DMV gather…

Sydney: We all have a lot that we can bring and teach each other about what it looks like to be Jewish today, and what it looks like to be Jewish as a growing community in the DMV. So, when Jews of the DMV gather, I hope we’re able to create our own song.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.