Hazzan Laura Lewis Mandeles

It was an oddity of the Lewis family that we lived in New York City but went to synagogue in Boston. Every Rosh Hashanah, we climbed into the Oldsmobile and headed north to attend services at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, where the great Gregor Shelkin was Hazzan. I remember the music was beautiful, but I had no idea what it was all about. So when I was in fourth grade I sat my dad down and made him teach me the Hebrew alphabet. Thus began a lifelong quest for Jewish learning. I was naturally inclined toward a musical pathway, but as a choir member knew the Latin mass and many Christmas carols by heart before turning my attention to Jewish music. I eventually fell into a High Holiday pulpit where I stayed for 26 years, and found my way to the enormously supportive Women Cantors’ Network.

Learning the cantorial art was necessarily a sideline, however, with two children and full-time work in a totally different field. I had graduated from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, eventually landing at NPR, where I spent almost a decade in the Development Office. Next was a thirty-year career as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, specializing in strategic planning, fund raising, organizational transitions, and meeting facilitation. In 2013, I finally turned to formal Jewish study, earning an online Certificate in Jewish Sacred Music from Hebrew College.

ALEPH was on my radar, however, and in 2016 I joined Cohort 9 of the Davvenen’ Leadership Training Institute where I learned just how much I had to learn. So I took a leap and entered AOP’s Cantorial Program. Receiving smicha is a lot like earning my first black belt in Tae Kwon Do—it is clearly a beginning, not an end.

You can find me still studying chazzonus in Fairfax, Virginia, with husband Mark and Iddo the Cat (Iddo specializes in a complex and inscrutable meow nusach). The two kids grew up and live close by. My business withered during the pandemic, happily leaving me a lot more time to practice singing, piano, and guitar; and to figure out my post-AOP “deployment,” as Reb Zalman might say. I am grateful to my many teachers over the years, with a special shout out to Hazzan Jack Kessler, Hazzan Diana Brewer, Rabbi Cantor Sharon Steinberg, and Hazzan Abbe Lyons; to my ever patient and tolerant husband, and to my children, who continue to wonder why Mom is such a “Jewish music nerd”; and to the many fellow students who have been companions along the way and quickly became dear friends.