Cantor Laura Berman recalls crying in the parking lot of the old B’nai Israel Synagogue on Negley Avenue as a third-grader starting Hebrew school.
The late Claryne Karsh had been directing a youth choir at the synagogue, and Berman, whose family lived in Highland Park, was longing to join. But, she was told, she would have to wait until she had a year of Hebrew school under her belt.
“I was in tears,” said Berman. “But I started the next year, and that experience of being in the choir had a strong impact on me. It was formative.”
That choral experience was so formative that it set off a lifelong love of Jewish music, which, combined with a passion for teaching, eventually led Berman to leave a successful career in finance in New York City for cantorial school.
Berman is now preparing to come home to her roots as the newly hired cantor of Temple Sinai.
Formerly cantor of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport, Conn., Berman will be joining Senior Rabbi James Gibson and new Associate Rabbi Keren Gorban on the bimah, strengthening Temple Sinai’s commitment to using music as a means to enhance the spiritual and communal connections of its congregants.
Twenty years ago, it was common for congregations to employ cantors in addition to rabbis to lead services and train b’nai mitzvah students, but that trend has reversed in recent years. There are a few local congregations that have ordained cantors serving as their primary spiritual leaders, and Congregation Beth Shalom’s new rabbi, Seth Adelson, is also an invested cantor. And while several congregations employ cantorial soloists — who have not been formally ordained — Temple Sinai will be unique in having a full-time invested cantor on its staff in addition to its rabbis.
“I think Temple Sinai is certainly making a strong statement about the importance of music, both in our tradition and in people’s lives,” said Berman. “Music is a powerful, powerful thing. It connects us to our past, our future, our traditions, to each other and to ourselves.”
Gibson, who is known for infusing his services with music, said he is looking forward to integrating Berman’s “passion and skill into our already vibrant music program at Temple Sinai.”
“We are very excited about Cantor Berman coming to Temple Sinai and bringing a rich background from cantorial school and from the field,” Gibson said.
Berman is a graduate of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she studied in Jerusalem and New York, earned a master’s in sacred music and a diploma of Hazzan. She is currently continuing her professional development in the distance-learning program offered by the Seminary’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education.
While serving The Conservative Synagogue in Connecticut, Berman developed and managed a large b’nai mitzvah program, which one year included 64 children and 14 adults.
“We wanted someone with the background who could teach trope, and Cantor Berman will be working with our bar and bat mitzvah students specifically,” said Nancy Gale, president of Temple Sinai, adding that Berman’s duties also will include working with the congregation’s choir and band and leading a variety of other programs as well.
Berman’s strengths, in combination with those of Gibson and newly hired Gorban, will give Temple Sinai a “unique set of talents to draw on,” Gale said. “All three play the guitar, and I can’t wait to see all three of them on the bimah playing guitar together. We probably already have the reputation that music is very important to us, and this is a good example of putting that to work.”
Berman’s mother and one of her brothers still live in Pittsburgh, and she is looking forward to being back in the city where she was raised and where her love of Judaism and music was shaped.
“It’s a wonderful and enriched Jewish community, with so much depth and so much accessibility,” said Berman, who will be moving here with her 6-year-old son, Sam. “We really look forward to being part of that.”
Although she was invested at a Conservative seminary, Berman does not see that as a conflict in serving a Reform congregation.
“I’m very respectful of wherever people are,” she said. “I think theologically I’m in an area of the spectrum that works. And I think musically it works.”
She typically blends traditional tunes with more contemporary melodies, she said.
“I blended modern and traditional in a lot of services I’ve done in the past,” she said. “Maybe there’s a little Carlebach, maybe some Israeli melodies or tunes from other parts of the world. It’s blended together. Ultimately, I want people to be engaged in the music.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.