New Cantor at Temple Emanuel Redefines the Job

Cantor at a podium
Kalix Jacobson is Temple Emanuel’s new cantor, making them the first to hold the position full time in more than 40 years.

“I think a misconception about cantors is that we show up and sing and that’s about it. The truth is that we do all sorts of different things. All the things that rabbis do, but in addition I’m trained to sing the entire canon of Reform Jewish music.”

That’s what Kalix Jacobson (who uses the pronouns they/their) said recently about their new role as cantor at Temple Emanuel of the South Hills. The congregation hasn’t had a full-time cantor in decades, making do mostly with cantorial soloists who worked on high holidays. Because of a legacy gift from member Betty Diskin, Temple Emanuel was able to expand its musical program by hiring Jacobson in July.

A native of the St. Louis area, Jacobson, 27, was ordained at New York’s Hebrew Union College, after earning an undergraduate degree in business, with a minor in music, and a master’s in nonprofit management.

“We do a little bit of everything,” said Jacobson. “Baby namings, weddings, funerals, confirmations, Sunday school teaching, pastoral counseling, teaching in the preschool, b’nai mitzvahs, that sort of stuff. But in addition we’re trained in the last several hundred years of Jewish music, in multiple languages and multiple dialects of Hebrew. My bookshelf is full of books of music that I’ve acquired over the last several years.”

Jacobson grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music, starting with their parents’ records. Many of their extended family members are singers and musicians, both amateur and professional. It’s made them a fan of all types of music.

“I initially was in a high-level school choir for seven years,” they said. “I sang all sorts of pop and gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. But my heart really belongs to the indie-folk genre. People like Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles are the people that inspire me.” Jacobson has been writing songs, including Jewish music, for more than a decade.

Jacobson does not see a challenge to being the first nonbinary staff member at Temple Emanuel. “I have a lot of experience dealing with people across the spectrum,” they said. “I understand that not everyone’s on the same level with understanding who I am. But everyone has been very wonderful and accepting and happy to have me here.”

Temple Emanuel’s rabbi, Aaron Meyer, sees Jacobson as serving in all the facets of his congregation’s life. “Cantor Kalix combines amazing musicianship and pastoral skills with an understanding of the future of Jewish community,” he said. “They also harbor a work ethic that breaks stereotypes about their generation!”

He also acknowledges the benefits of having a cantor with a master’s in nonprofit management.

Meanwhile Jacobson has settled happily into Pittsburgh with their partner. “I love the Pittsburgh area, it’s fantastic. I joke that it’s like a blending of different parts of America: the Northeast, the South, the Midwest. We live in Dormont and I love the walkability and the access to the T and all the bars and restaurants on our street. The people are incredibly nice.”

They also love their new job. “Frankly, Temple Emanuel was the only place I wanted to come. The staff is incredible and it’s really a nice feeling that I have institutional support. The culture here, working with Aaron, has just been a complete delight.”

Jacobson looks forward to learning on the job. “I think the biggest obstacle is having the congregation reimagine what a cantor can do. I’m still discovering all the aspects of my job, and the people here are still discovering all the aspects of my job. So it’s a journey of discovery together.”

Photography by John Altdorfer