The many communal hats worn by Cantor Stephanie Weishaar


Cantor-led congregations are something of a rarity, but Kol Nefesh, a Reform congregation in Columbia’s Oakland Interfaith Meeting House, is one of the fortunate few.

Chazzan (“Cantor”) Stephanie Weishaar (Courtesy)

Chazzan Stephanie Weishaar, 53, acts as the synagogue’s cantor, rabbi and overall leader, spiritual and otherwise, while also serving as the president of the Howard County Board of Rabbis and the executive vice president of the Women Cantors Network, a worldwide organization of female cantors.

Though she is heavily involved in the Jewish community now, Weishaar’s upbringing in Chicago was fairly secular. Her family celebrated Jewish holidays but did not participate heavily in the community until she was in fourth grade. Her peers entering Hebrew school at that age changed things.

“I asked my parents why this kid in my class was Jewish and went to Hebrew school, and this other kid was Jewish and went to Hebrew school, and I’m Jewish, so why don’t I go to Hebrew school?” she recalled. “They scrambled and found an unaffiliated Conservative congregation, and I loved it. I was one of those kids who would just sit and learn and write in a little blue booklet.”

Part of why her family’s participation in Judaism was minimal was because of her father’s circumstances growing up as part of a poor Jewish family in rural Georgia. Two months before his bar mitzvah, his parents had to cancel the affair because they were behind on their dues and could not afford a party.

“My father grew up thinking that organized religion was organized to get money,” said Weishaar.

After her bat mitzvah, Weishaar would not do very much in the Jewish community for a while until she started working for a Jewish charity in Ukraine and Russia as a national development professional.

“I got to learn a lot about their way of looking at Judaism and practicing it,” she said. “And some of it didn’t fit my progressive feminist ideals, but some of it was really interesting. Many were so ecstatic in prayer and in joyful music and dancing, and I really liked that.”

Becoming a cantor didn’t even occur to Weishaar until her daughter attended a JCC preschool in Harrisburg, Pa., while her husband, Bobby Weishaar, was working there. Her two children’s excitement in attending preschool and Hebrew school encouraged her to get more involved in the community, especially when her family moved to Maryland. She joined a Reform congregation whose rabbi asked her to volunteer at services singing songs, which she enjoyed so much that it led her to enroll in online seminary school classes.

At the same time, Kol Nefesh had just formed. The synagogue was created by a group of parents in Columbia, Md., who did not feel that other congregations in the area suited their needs, so they broke off to form their own. But they were still in need of a religious leader, so they put out an ad, which Weishaar answered.

‘Almost like two majors’ in college

Now settled into the job, Weishaar tries to make services approachable for everyone, regardless of their knowledge of Judaism. She noted that many people who return to the religion in adulthood have not studied it in-depth since their b’nai mitzvahs, so she tries to make Kol Nefesh’s services accommodating for people of all levels of involvement.

Weishaar became involved with the Howard County Board of Rabbis when one of her congregants, a board member for the Jewish Federation of Howard County, remarked that Kol Nefesh was not represented on the board due to its status as a cantor-led congregation. She joined and later became its president.

Her additional work as part of the Women Cantors Network also puts her in contact with her female peers, another rarity in the Jewish community. The network helps women cantors contact each one another and works to bring them together.

As far as her multiple roles, “an ordained cantor and an ordained rabbi can do the same things. There’s nothing either of us can’t do,” she remarked. “Some rabbis know the musical tradition well and can cover that, while some cantors know Jewish law. It’s almost like two majors” in college.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here