Volunteer of the Month: Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky
Hayley is a 2005 graduate of the DFSSM. She and her family live in Bedford Hills, NY. She joined the teaching staff at HUC in 2011. Hayley teaches classes (Reform and Traditional) about the Shelosh Regalim liturgy. She is also President of the Westchester County cantors’ association, Kol Hazzanim.
In what ways have you volunteered for the ACC? Were you asked or did you just step up on your own?
Three and a half years ago I was approached to succeed Cantor Kay Greenwald in organizing the ACC’s contributions to Ten Minutes of Torah. I accepted that role, and coordinated with Rabbi Victor Appell who was the editor-in-chief at the time. We had a year-long arc of writing about the entire liturgy for Yamim Noraim leading up to the release of the new Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh. We provided enrichment in the liturgy, but also prepared people for updates and changes coming with Mishkan HaNefesh. In a repeated three-week cycle, there would be an article about the meaning and history of the liturgy, followed by an article about what was going to happen with that liturgy in Mishkan HaNefesh, and finally an article about the musical traditions for that liturgy. We didn’t have new settings yet, so cantors’ articles focused on the history and variety of the music. For example, there were three weeks’ articles on Avinu Malkeinu, and three weeks on the Shofar Service, which was one of the broader topics. Most topics were about a narrow bit of liturgy. I ended up researching and writing nine of those articles myself. After that arc completed, the theme was changed to Gems of Jewish Arts and Culture. I wanted to get a wide cross-section of cantors, from different generations and geographical areas, as well as those with different cantorial styles. We had articles published from cantors all over the globe, including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and all across the United States.
In your experience what’s the best part about being a Cantor?
Being there for people in times of greatest joy and greatest need. Recently what has been most meaningful to me is seeing the successes of some of the young people I’ve worked with who have had a lot of struggles. Some have special learning styles or needs, but in general, we work largely with pre-teens who have a lot going on emotionally at that stage of life. What keeps me going on rough days is remembering the impact that we have on these young people. One recent student wrote me a note, telling me how I had changed her life and her outlook on education. It made her work harder in school and believe in her abilities. To see a thirteen year old write that is incredible. That kind of impact and those relationships are what keep me going.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the cantorate now and in the future?
Generally speaking, I think that there are societal trends that are negatively impacting synagogues. The economy is still recovering and that will take a long time. It affects synagogues and the people in them. Congregations feeling the financial pinch may get a cantor only part-time and miss out on all that a full-time cantor provides. Those individual congregants may lose connections to our vast musical heritage. People are also extremely over-programmed today. Being a member of a religious community and being active in it is ranking lower and lower on the priority list. We see choirs are harder to maintain, along with Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods. Kids do all manner of activities that keep them extremely busy and away from synagogue. There’s not a lot of time to devote to their Jewish identities.
Why did you become a Cantor? Did someone in particular influence you to become a Cantor?
Bette Cohen was my childhood cantor at Temple Emanu-El of Long Beach, New York. Bette came first as a student and that rolled over into a full time position. She was there for eighteen years. As soon as she came, she lowered the minimum age to be a member of the Children’s Choir. I joined that choir right away and later “graduated” into the adult volunteer choir after my Bat Mitzvah. She would occasionally mount stage productions; I remember performing in “The Creation.” She was and continues to be a mentor and inspiration for me, advising on all matters from music to politics. She played a large role in helping me develop into my voice, guiding me from a very young age. I started singing professionally when I was ten. I remember her taking me to her voice teacher to get his opinion on when I should start training. I was also in a volunteer variety show that visited libraries and senior centers.
Some time before my Bat Mitzvah, I was at Simchat Torah services, taking part in parading around with the Torah behind Cantor Cohen. A congregant said to me, “You sound like the Cantor. You should become a Cantor when you grow up.” I thought to myself, well, maybe. I wanted to leave a lot of options open because I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.
I did my undergraduate work at Columbia University, along with a cross-registration program at Juilliard, to get the benefit of both a top music conservatory as well as an Ivy League education. I chose my major at Columbia, psychology, so that it would be useful in the cantorate but also various other fields. At Columbia I studied Yiddish, piano, history of Yiddish theater, and some comparative religion studies. It became apparent shortly after I finished my B.A. that my path was obvious; it was bashert. There was no avoiding it. I was going to combine everything I loved in life and make it a career. My greatest interests were my love for Judaism, my love of music and, as a third-generation survivor of the Shoah, the importance of raising a Jewish family. I was accepted to HUC. At that time, HUC used to create an ad-hoc congregation for High Holiday services in their basement (the CL). Just before I received my acceptance from HUC, I got a call to serve as student cantor, along with Rabbi Lawrence Raphael, for this temporary congregation of a thousand people. I worked for months to learn the music.
Tell us something about yourself that we might not know.
I really love folk music. I like listening to Celtic and Cajun music for example. But I especially enjoy listening to, and singing, Yiddish music. I’ve studied five foreign languages: French, Italian, German, Yiddish and Hebrew. I love learning expressions and songs in other languages as well. I know a tiny bit of Mandarin and still remember a song I learned in Hungarian 20 years ago. I love doing fine arts: painting, drawing, scrapbooking, crocheting, and knitting, though I don’t have much time to do them these days!