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New Female Cantor in Germany Came to Renewal After Journey

At her cantorial ordination, Jalda Rebling suddenly bent down and removed her shoes and proceeded through the ceremony barefoot.

“I was flying on the wings of the shechina,” Rebling said of her experience at the ceremony earlier this month.

The words of ordination were spoken, and with them “a lot of energy went not only into my body but into my soul, into me, and with this energy I was stepping to another point in my life,” she said in an interview from her home in Berlin.

Rebling, 56, made a winding journey to reach this point. The Amsterdam native grew up in a family steeped in Jewish music and culture. Her mother, the late Rebekka Brilleslijper, aka Lin Jaldati — was a well-known singer of Yiddish music. Her father, who had left Germany in 1936 for Holland, is pianist and musicologist Eberhard Rebling.

Rebling’s parents survived the Holocaust: Her mother was liberated from Bergen Belsen, while Eberhard survived in hiding.

The family moved to East Germany when Rebling was a baby. Her parents were socialist idealists. But the reality of life there was far from ideal. And Rebling’s mother, who died in 1988, had many regrets. She reportedly urged others to leave if they could — for Israel or the United States.

Growing up with Jewish music, Rebling always wanted to learn more about Yiddish culture and Jewish history. She later recorded albums of German Jewish music from the Middle Ages, as well as Sephardi music.

In 1993, after performing in the United States, she attended a bar mitzvah on Long Island, N.Y., and for the first time saw “mothers giving the Torah to theirs sons. And I thought, now the heavens will open and thunder will come down. But nothing happened.”

At about the same time in Germany, a new movement toward egalitarian Judaism was taking place. Rebling became involved in a group at Berlin’s Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue. A co-founder of the minyan there, Elisa Klapheck, had begun her rabbinical studies with the Jewish Renewal movement, following in the footsteps of historian Andreas Nachama. Both have since been ordained.

In 2004, Rebling joined the Renewal program, which involves study via telephone conferences and two visits per year to the U.S.-based program.

Rebling, who has three sons, lives in former East Berlin with her partner, artist Anna Adam. For some years she has been teaching and serving as acting cantor in egalitarian Jewish congregations in Berlin and Frankfurt.

“I dream of lots of Jewish communities, not only in Germany but all around Europe, who know what they are doing and who are able to step in and help at any place in a service. We lost a huge amount of Jewish knowledge in the Shoah, and I want to build a bridge” to the future.

She also believes the Torah is flexible.

“We have to find ways to serve all those people who are not living in traditional families,” she said. “My youngest son, Joseph, has grown up with two mothers, and for sure on his bar mitzvah he got the Torah from those two mothers.”

Rebling, one of a few female cantors in Germany, acknowledges that full-time work will be hard to come by. She wants to teach and “to bring more joy into our services,” she said. “We need to create a joyful future, to be proud Jews who love to live.”

After her ordination, Rebling received three offers of jobs in the United States.

“I said, ‘Listen, I am a European, and my task is here,’ ” she said. “Here is something new to build, and I like that.”

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