There’s that misconception, cantor Julie Berlin says, that all she does is sing — or lead singing — at Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley.
But the nearly 40 kids she is preparing for bar and bat mitzvahs can set the record straight. As can the children at the temple’s preschool where she teaches music, or the Friday morning children’s Shabbat she leads. Or those in the temple’s religious school where she teaches two classes each week, including advanced Hebrew and the religious school services she leads. And there’s more.
In fact, Berlin works six days a week for her Reform Jewish congregation and sometimes seven when funerals or meetings occur on Tuesdays, her day off. A busy schedule for a mom with three children ages 4 to 10.
Only three of the more than 25 Jewish congregations in the Valley have “invested” (ordained) cantors, while others may employ cantorial soloists. Cantor is a highly respected and valued post in a synagogue, and typically is affordable if a temple has at least 450 families, said cantor Gail Hirschenfang, interim director of the American Conference of Cantors. The rigorous training of a cantor includes five years of graduate study, the same as a rabbi. Cantors are regarded as clergy with the authority to do most of what rabbis do, including officiate at Sabbath, or Shabbat, and holiday services, handle life-cycle events, counsel congregants and teach.
“A lot of people think that cantors just sing,” said Berlin, who is married to Rabbi Alan Berlin, who has been the temple’s spiritual leader since July 2002. Julie Berlin became Temple Solel’s first invested cantor in 1998.
“People will say she has a voice like an angel,” said Judy Schaffert, past president of the congregation. She had two sons who are in their teens, and when they were bar mitzvahed they wanted to make sure Berlin would be singing. Even their non-Jewish friends inquired because they felt that listening to her voice was a transcendent experience.
“She brings joy and love and happiness,” said Arlene Bonime of Scottsdale, a temple member for seven years. “When she sings, I’m in heaven. She’s got a beautiful voice and a wonderful disposition.”
Schaffert said Berlin’s singing contains “an amazing clear tone” that is unwavering, “a lovely, clear and melodic sound.”
Female cantors date only to 1975.
“There has been a very widespread acceptance of female cantors,” Hirschenfang said.
Berlin agreed, but added, “I wouldn’t say that the Orthodox rabbis in town would welcome me leading their services.”
As a child, Berlin remembers how much her mother sang in the car and how they listened to all kinds of music on the radio. From singing in a third-grade chorus, she moved on to voice lessons, high school honor choir and a deftness at sight-reading. While completing her university degree, Berlin was dismayed how vulnerable music education was to budget cuts in public schools — “music and art are the first to go” — so she pursued cantorial education. “I also decided I wanted Judaism to be more a part of my life,” she said.
Besides a strong foundation in Jewish life, solid vocal and musical skills and some fluency in Hebrew to be accepted to the Reform cantorial school, students are trained in “nusach,” or traditional prayer modes, modern Reform music repertoire and liturgical music. They are required to study sacred texts and liturgy for Jewish holidays and to study in Israel.
Berlin said she and her rabbi husband try to avoid temple talk at the dinner table for their children’s sake. Yet both have such demanding schedules that often they don’t get to talk at the temple. “He is way down the hall, so I have to wait until I get home,” she said.
It could be worse, Berlin said, “if we worked at different synagogues.”
She describes Temple Solel as a congregation that enjoys singing and less being sung to. “They like to participate,” she said. “There is more energy, I think, when there is more participation.”
The cantor is about to enroll children to begin their studies toward bar/bat mitzvahs in the 2009-10 cycle, and it means talking to families and ensuring they know the regimen.
Berlin puts on an annual Cantors Concert, featuring her and a guest cantor singing works of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin “and the stuff you heard Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra singing.” Backed by a three-piece band, it’s become a tradition. “It is just fun to do something different,” she said.
“Cantor Berlin likes to bring people together,” Schaffert said. “I know she likes to have fun. … She is really terrific with kids.” “She’s got a lovely children’s choir,” Schaffert said. Where most kids choruses have two kids shouting and the rest staring into space, Berlin “has gotten some real music out of these kids. It’s really sweet.”