Cantors are a rare breed and women cantors rarer still. Only a handful of professional women cantors serve Jewish congregations in the Washington area, and their presence at the pulpit is still a novelty to some.

"We do get people who say, 'I've never seen a lady cantor before--I'm not quite used to it,' " said Rochelle Helzner, a freelancer dividing her time among several local synagogues. "Some people are surprised . . . but they're not unhappy about it . . . . They're very accepting if it's done well."

Although some hurdles remain, the odds are that more and more women like her will be winning acceptance by congregations--given changing attitudes and the widespread shortage of certified cantors, or hazzans.

Nationally, there are about 750 certified cantors, 12 of them women, and nearly 10 times that many congregations, based on figures supplied by cantorial schools and professional cantor organizations.

Several hundred self-trained full-time hazzans (roughly 18 percent are women) help pick up the slack, according to those figures, and many more free-lancers are available, although there is no firm handle on their numbers.

Cantorial diplomas are not always essential. Anybody who knows how to lead a service can do so if a synagogue decides to open the duties to the lay community, and, increasingly, synagogues across the country are doing just that.

There is an undeniable lure to the cantorial calling--assisting the rabbi by leading the congregation in musical prayer, chanting the words in the prayer book, or siddur, in the traditional manner or with a special melody to draw out the meaning of a prayer.

"There's not only a spiritual feeling that makes you feel part of a spiritual connection with God but a connection with your ancestry," said Margaret Brenner, who has been cantorial soloist and music director at Reform Temple Micah in Southwest Washington for about a decade.

"The words . . . have a beauty of their own and then they have a meaning that goes beyond their elementary meaning . . . . They have emotion because you know that these prayers have been said throughout history in times of pleasure, in times of pain, in times of great creativity. They are . . . the great binders of the Jewish people."

That broad sweep also appeals to Sue Roemer, nearly six years a cantor at Reform Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, who noted that the job "runs the gamut of emotions." A recent week's work, for instance, included a funeral on Tuesday, regular services Friday night, a Bat Mitzvah Saturday morning and a wedding that same evening.

With a few exceptions, most women who make their livings as hazzanshave taken their place in the pulpitmainly in the last decade, and, like Roemer have slowly expanded the boundaries of opportunity. She, for example, became "first woman ever to daven pray a morning service for the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in the 78 years of its existence." "Not all the rabbis came to the service," she added, "but there were many rabbis there who . . . wound up dancing at the end."

Roemer finds older Jews among the most supportive. "Very often it's the old men who have come up to me and said, 'You davened beautifully,' and, 'My gosh, we should have let women do this long ago.' "

For Roemer, Brenner and Helzner, who are among the half dozen or so professional women hazzans in the Washington area, the position is more than a job. It's a special calling. They learned the elements of prayer through intensive independent study of Jewish liturgical music and chant, and by taking courses and attending services.Helzner and Roemer studied with other cantors, and all three majored in music at large Eastern universities.

After years of such training, the three dislike being called "songleaders," a term sometimes used to describe what they do. Helzner and Roemer, who often play guitar while they sing, acknowledge that their instruments may be associated with campfire singalongs. But a songleader may not be in touch with the meanings of the prayers, and as Brenner put it: "You want to be more than a morale booster or someone to whip up enthusiasm."

While these three hazzans are among the self-taught, some others have gone to cantorial school. The Reform Movement's School of Sacred Music is the oldest of these, established in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust to preserve the profession, and the Conservative and Orthodox movements followed shortly thereafter with schools of their own. The newest movement, the Reconstructionist, has women as cantors but no cantorial school yet.

In the early '70s, the Reform school was the first to admit women. Its 12 female graduates are the only women hazzans to become certified, or invested with diplomas.

Although women attend the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, taking many of the same courses as the men, they are not candidates for a cantorial diploma. "The problem with Conservative women cantors is that it's not encouraged at all," said Helzner. "Officially, it's not recognized, so it's a struggle . . . . Things are changing, but . . . from the grass roots," said Helzner, whose freelancing includes three Conservative synagogues.

Ultimately, she wants full-time work--to become involved with one congregation, preferably Conservative--and she hopes the opportunity will be there.

While Conservative views on women cantors range widely, the Orthodoxy says Jewish law precludes the question: Men are required to pray three times a day, but women are not similarly obligated (children being their first responsibility) and therefore cannot lead men in prayer.

"I was asked to be the cantor at a funeral," said Brenner. "Unfortunately, the rabbi . . . was Orthodox and he would not accept me in that role." She was in a similar situation with a wedding. Both times, she sang for the families before services began.

And yet, with all the frustration, the calling has its great rewards. "Singing at a special event," said Brenner, "sometimes you just get drunk . . . like you can't stand on your feet anymore . . . from the intense joy," said Brenner.

"As one of God's creatures . . . I have something I can do," she added. "My voice can give expression to the words of our ancestors . . . . All that has gone before me--all the people, all the tragedy, all the beauty . . . I feel that as I sing."