Temple Adat Shalom's cantor to retire after 40 years in trailblazing role (2023)

Cantor Lori Wilinsky Frank’s path to becoming a religious leader at Temple Adat Shalom in Poway seemed like an improbability in the early 1980s.

Yet it was also her destiny.

“I can’t think of any other career I am meant for,” Frank said. “The talents God gave me are perfect for a cantor. It is where my life is. What I was destined to be was a cantor. It was my life goal and dream.”

Forty years later, Frank — a trailblazer in the Reform Jewish community — says it is time for her to retire and for someone else to oversee every musical detail for high holidays, weekly services and the synagogue’s many music groups.

As an ordained clergy member, her successor will also have to guide pre-teens in Bar and Bat Mitzvah preparation, conduct marriage and funeral services, make hospital visits and provide spiritual guidance as she has done for multiple generations.

“As a co-spiritual leader and clergy member what a rabbi is to words I am to music,” Frank said. “I am a spiritual practitioner of music.”

While happy for Frank, Rabbi David Castiglione said her retirement on Aug. 1 will be “bittersweet.” He has worked with her at Temple Adat Shalom for the past 13 years.

“I am deeply happy for any opportunities that await her ... but am sad because I will miss our companionship, partnership and creativity that we have together,” Castiglione said.

“Cantor Lori leaves an indelible mark as she continues to bring her enthusiasm, creativity and love for the congregation. She has been the cantor here with generations who have grown up knowing no one else but her. ... She is a beloved member of our family.”

The congregation will honor Frank with a gala celebration on May 21.

Frank said she first thought about becoming a cantor as a teen.

“It all started with my Bat Mitzvah,” she said, recalling accolades she received from those who heard her sing during her religious initiation ceremony. “They said I sing so beautifully at 13 and a seed was planted that day.”

So during high school she studied opera and participated in musical theater. Always feeling drawn to her dream of being a cantor she also started independent studies in Jewish liturgy.

At the time Frank was thinking about what career she wanted, the Reform Jewish community in the United States was undergoing changes. In 1968, Hebrew Union College accepted Sally Priesand as its first woman in rabbinic training. She was ordained in 1972.

In 1970, the New York-based college began admitting female students for formal cantorial studies. Barbara Ostfeld was the first woman ordained as a cantor in 1975.

During Frank’s junior and senior years at the State University of New York at Albany she was a cantorial soloist, a non-ordained position, at a small synagogue. In 1980 she graduated with a bachelor’s in Judaic studies and music.

Following graduation she applied to Hebrew Union College’s cantor program to earn the equivalent of a master’s.

“They were just not ready yet,” Frank said. “I was born five years too soon. It was theoretically open, but in reality wasn’t. Three women got in when I applied. It was very difficult ... an old boys club. ... It was very discouraging.”

So in 1980 she had two choices — move to Boston with friends or follow her parents to San Diego. They had moved from Rochester, New York while she was in college.

Frank said she chose San Diego, where she was hired for musical theater and opera shows. During the day she worked as a dental assistant.

Temple Adat Shalom's cantor to retire after 40 years in trailblazing role (1)

Cantor Lori Wilinsky Frank in the late 1980s.

(Courtesy photo)

While her aspirations to become a cantor were sidelined, it was still her destiny. In 1981 Temple Adat Shalom organized a trip for congregants to see a show she happened to be in, Frank said. Her program bio mentioned she had a degree in Judaic studies and was a cantorial soloist in New York. After the show Temple Adat Shalom’s rabbi approached her and said the fledging congregation was looking for a cantorial soloist to sing at its upcoming high holiday services.

In 1982 she was offered a part-time job as musical director and worship leader. With shabbat services on Friday nights and Saturdays mornings and religious school on Sundays, Frank said she had to end her theater career. By 1983 the synagogue offered her a full-time position and she has been a member of the American Conference of Cantors since 1985.

Several years later she began the cantorial certification program to earn the equivalent of a Masters of Sacred Music degree from Hebrew Union College’s School of Sacred Music. Frank said she spent five years training with cantors in Los Angeles and traveling to New York to take her exams. She graduated in 2001.

“It was a lot of studying, college was not this intensive,” Frank said.

The curriculum included musicianship, sight reading, musical dictation, repertoire performance and memorizing prayer modes, including how to chant entire prayers of services. She also had to study Jewish history, Biblical history and translate the Torah and liturgy in Hebrew.

“It was mind-boggling,” Frank said. “Some would have given up, but I knew I could do this, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t, even when the world was stacked against me.”

As Temple Adat Shalom’s cantor and co-spiritual leader she directs the music programs at its schools and during worship and congregational events. These include the adult choir, junior and youth choirs, the TAS Simchat Shabbat Band, Purim Spiels concerts and Selichot programs. She is also involved in all aspects of congregational life, including religious practices, religious school, adult education, lifecycle and pastoral care and outreach.

Frank also oversees and participates in the instruction of all Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and led many congregational Jewish heritage trips to eastern and central Europe, Spain, Cuba, Israel and Egypt.

She is part of the area’s interfaith community. The Rev. Abigail Albert from the All Faith Center in Poway said the two have worked together on POINT (Poway Interfaith Team) since 2006.

“I love Cantor Lori, she is a friend of mine,” Albert said. “We work so well together. We plan the interfaith Thanksgiving service hosted by POINT ... she gathers all the musicians and I the speakers. Between the two of us we put together the program.”

Albert said they have organized the annual Thanksgiving service since 2008.

“She is a delight and has a heart of gold,” Albert said. “She is the sweetest person I know. I truly love her as a friend and wish her all the best. (Lori) has been the heart and soul of Temple Adat Shalom. She goes above and beyond the call of duty. She loves what she does. She is a fabulous lady.”

Frank credited the Temple Adat Shalom congregation for its vision and progressive views, which allowed her to become the first cantorial soloist in San Diego.

Temple Adat Shalom's cantor to retire after 40 years in trailblazing role (2)

Cantor Lori Wilinsky Frank with her husband, Jeff Frank. The couple has been married for 36 years.

(Courtesy photo)

“This congregation is accepting, they welcomed me and were encouraging me,” she said. “Had they not been open to a female soloist none of this would have happened.”

Compared to synagogues that are more conservative, Frank said those in Reform Judaism are “progressive yet they maintain the essence of Judaism. There is a leeway in the interpretation and teaching of law. It is the liberal wing of Judaism.”

Frank recalled how for several years Temple Adat Shalom was led by herself and Rabbi Deborah Prinz.

“For a while we were the only female rabbi/cantor duo,” she said. “That was very unique.”

For many years they were joined by Gail Littman as the congregation’s president, so three women were in charge. Later they had another female rabbi, Tamar Malino.

Frank said the pandemic was very difficult for her, and COVID changed her priorities.

“People were dying and I paused,” she said, noting Temple Adat Shalom switched to virtual services, with clergy on Zoom or just her, the rabbi and a cameraman in the sanctuary. Now they offer a hybrid service with in-person and virtual options.

“I just knew that I was so proud of the program I built up over 40 years and to start again from scratch is very difficult,” Frank said. “Change needs to happen to bring people back to the synagogue. It’s time for the torch to be passed for a new future for Judaism.

“I am committed to a smooth transition, I love this congregation. It is my temple, my family. It is hard to imagine life without it ... but it is not like we are saying goodbye.”

Frank said she is looking forward to spending time with Jeff, her husband of 36 years. He retired as a journalist five years ago and has “been waiting for me very patiently,” she said. “Now is his time and I am looking forward to just picking up and taking off.”

With travel being their passion, the couple can take trips and do spontaneous activities without working around the synagogue’s calendar and her being on call 24/7. She will also have time to pursue hobbies. Frank said she and her husband love to dance, pre-pandemic she took spin classes and now she does power walking.

“I am leaving with a full heart, proud of the temple and everything I have been a part of for the last 40 years,” Frank said.

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