Who The Folk?! Hazzan Joanna Dulkin

Hazzan Joanna Dulkin has been a clergy-member for a number of years, but her move earlier this month to Adath Jeshurun is the largest she’s worked at yet. Dulkin and her husband, new Minnesota Hillel senior Jewish educator Rabbi Ryan Dulkin, have settled into the Minnetonka home as they await their sons’ returns from two different Camp Ramah sites. The hazzan talks about her choice of title, how Minnesota is treating her and how she works with congregants in this week’s Who The Folk?!

How has Minnesota treated you so far?

It’s been a great move. We feel very at home here even though we’ve never lived here before. It’s nice to come back to the Midwest. And everyone’s been wonderful. We lived in St. Louis for seven years. That’s where our kids grew up. My kids went to preschool and lots of elementary school years there. In some ways, it’s a homecoming, but other ways completely different.

Is it an occupational hazard to not feel rooted, knowing you could go somewhere else at a moment’s notice?

Yes, but it’s more deliberate than it seems. The clergy world is different in that, very often, when you change jobs, you change states. That is true. That’s part of the job.

Is that magnified having a husband that’s a rabbi? You are a two-clergy household.

It’s pretty rare. A lot of us know each other. We’re a small club. And for many years, Ryan was in academia because the dual-pulpit household is very challenging. But people do it all the time.

Is this the first time you’ve been at a congregation of this size?

Yes, it’s the largest congregation I’ve served. It’s great. I’m used to it.

What’s the biggest challenge in the step up?

I was talking with a colleague about wanting to learn everyone’s names in the first year at a new shul, and I’m not sure that’s even possible for the first year. I’m always going to be meeting new people. The people who I’m going to be interacting with, whether it’s a bar mitzvah family, a family in Shiva, or a Shabbat regular family. If they are in the orbit, I’d like to get to know them. There’s still a core of regulars, no matter how big the synagogue. There’s still a core that’s fully engaged. Because there are more families, there are many more things going on and many more people to attend to.

You have an array of instruments in the office.

The violins are the kids’. I’m a guitar player. I was trained in classical piano but picked up the guitar after spending the summer at Kutz Camp in High School and I never went back. I came up through the song-leading world. My whole family is musicians. Last year in our house we were taking: Guitar, voice, violin, trumpet and saxophone lessons every week. We all study music. We’re all students of music. And we’re all music lovers.

What do you consider to be your cantorial style?

I try to make the prayer experience meaningful, accessible and joyful, and engage everybody. I think about, in terms of a prayer experience – and by the way, my job is much more than singing and praying – I choose music and I lead prayer in such a way that it’s not a spectator sport so that people are moved to participate and engage and be transformed by the prayer experience.

How was your first Shabbat experience? Was it nerve wracking?

I don’t see prayer-leading as performance – and I’ve been in the business for a long time. There’s a difference between being on a stage and leading prayer. It may feel like one is performing when you’re on the bima; that’s what I tell my bar and bat mitzvah kids: It might feel like you’re performing because you’re standing on a ‘stage’ and you’re singing things that everyone may not be joining in. There’s no audience or performer. There are people praying. Maybe God’s presence is felt, hopefully, and we are creating channels of communication between one and other and us and God. That is the goal, rather than a great, beautiful thing where there is applause at the end. I don’t get nervous, per se, because the stakes are very different. And I strive to know the people I’m praying with so I can be more in tune with what their needs, thoughts and desires are.

What I tell to adults when they say ‘What if I mess up?’ I say ‘This is what happens when you mess up. Not if; when. Nothing.’ I say this: There are people who don’t know you, and there are people there for Shabbat. In the people who don’t know you, there are people who have read Torah a lot, and they know how hard it is, and so they are totally with you. And there are the people who haven’t read Torah who think it’s totally amazing and they could never do that. And then there’s all the people who do know you and they are totally with you and they are so happy for you and so full of love for you, that it doesn’t matter what you’ll do in those three hours, even though you’ll be awesome, because we’re here for you because we love you. We’re going to love you before, during and after, and we’re on your team.

When someone comes up and says ‘I noticed the student didn’t do the third Aliyah,’ or ‘I noticed that you cut the haftorah,’ I say ‘Yeah. She had an amazing journey and literally, you know nothing about the kid’s journey.’ Every kid rises to the occasion.

Why do you prefer Hazzan over Cantor?

It comes down to preference. There are many cantors who are hazzanim. I have a diploma that says “diploma of hazzan,” so it says that, and that’s the traditional word for what I do, in that rav is the traditional word for rabbi. Hazzan comes from the Hebrew and it appears in the Mishna very early on. It comes from the root hazon, to vision. Cantor is a word that comes from either Latin – cantore, singer – which is a word to describes someone in Judaism or Christian tradition that leads singing; or Italian – cantare – to sing. And so cantor, while it’s the word that most people understand, it focuses more on the singing. While I’m a musician and a singer, what I view myself is more of a member of the clergy whose specialty is liturgy and music. My job is to work with my clergy partners to create a vision for the synagogue and for the liturgical and musical and spiritual life of the synagogue. And I like that it comes from the Hebrew. It encapsulates my vision of how I view my role. I’m a musician but that doesn’t encompass all that I am.

What have you gotten to experience in Minnesota?

Our first few days we hadn’t closed on our house so we stayed with [Rabbi] Aaron [Weininger]. We couldn’t move in because our stuff was on the way. We could only be tourists. We went to the sculpture garden and Walker most of one day. We got the Nice Ride bikes for a day. We went across the Hennepin bridge and along the river. Biked the Cedar Lake trail back to the Walker. I’m a vegan but I’m finding the dining options in Minneapolis to be stellar. While it’s nice, we’re out biking. We’ve had a lot of great suggestions, so when the kids get back, we’ll hit some of the sights. I have a whole list of things. We’ve really enjoyed it. I’m hoping it stays nice. I heard it gets a little cold here.

Wait, you’re a vegan, and your husband is a…  

Avid carnivore. Welcome to the Dulkins. You can come over and have ribs and tofu.

Favorite Jewish holiday?

If I say Yom Kippur, you’ll think I’m insane. But I love Yom Kippur.


Partially because I’m a prayer and liturgy nerd and I think the liturgy is most powerful on Yom Kippur. The other reason is that the energy in the room at the end of the day is an energy that does not exist any other time of year. It’s a palpable, alive, incredible electric energy. It’s powered by the liturgy but t also the people there who have been fasting. The bookends of Kol Nidre and Neilah are some of the most powerful liturgies.

Favorite Jewish food?

That’s very difficult. I’d say hummus because it’s Israeli. I discovered Holy Land here, but I make a pretty mean one at home when I have time. When I don’t, I buy it.

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