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Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Beck-Berman (’05)

January 11, 2019 / Catherine Nicholas / Blog

Sarah Beck-Berman (’05) is the Cantor at Congregation Beth Ahabah, the oldest synagogue in Richmond and home of the 6th oldest Jewish community in the country.  Sarah’s father is a rabbi, so she grew up with an understanding of what it meant to be a member of the clergy. But she was not always on that path herself. After graduating from MLWGS, Sarah attended VCU, where she intended to major in international studies until in her third year she made the switch to religious studies. In 2012, she started working at Beth Ahabah as a soloist. In 2013, she started her first semester at the nondenominational ordination program at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. “I’ve lead services since I was 13 or 14 years old, so I already had many of those skill sets, though obviously I still had a lot to learn.” As she went through cantorial school, her role at Beth Ahabah grew and changed, and it has continued to do so after her ordination last year.

Though there is overlap between cantorial and rabbinical duties, the cantor’s expertise, as Sarah puts it, “is in sacred music, and in learning, utilizing, preserving, and renewing the enormous musical history that Judaism has, as well as chanting from and interpreting sacred texts.” Jewish liturgy is chanted or sung with different musical modes and motifs depending on various factors, like the time of year. But her cantorial duties during services are only part of what she does.

She is in charge of the bar and bat mitzvah program, as well as the synagogue’s music program. She also has a hand in pastoral care. “That means in part that I have a responsibility as an authority figure,” she explains, which for her means placing a great deal of importance on ethics. “Doing this work, you’re there for death, divorce, birth, marriage—all sorts of transitions in people’s lives. Judaism is community-oriented, so there’s a lot of celebrating together. Lots of chaplaincy is about non-judgmental listening and acceptance, but there’s also an aspect of internal, self-reflective work that necessarily goes along with it for me.”

For all her role asks of her, she still finds ways to do more. Just this past summer, she recorded an album of music alongside the composer, Beth Ahabah’s longtime music director, Natan Berenshteyn. “20 Years of Songs” comes out on January 18th, and all proceeds are donations which benefit the synagogue’s music fund. The music fund supports the internal music program at Beth Ahabah as well as other events they host for the community. In March, they are partnering with nearby St. James’s Episcopal Church and the Richmond Choral Society to host a piece Sarah describes as “a conversation between Jewish and Christian liturgy,” and in May, Jocelyn Adelman of the Richmond Symphony will offer a Yom HaShoah Concert.

Sarah has a quality of being interested in the world. She moves easily from talking about Jewish musical traditions from around the globe, to advocating for gender inclusivity and non-binary options in the synagogue, to discussing boundary-setting and burnout.  Perhaps it is that interest that allows her to state her motivation so clearly. “I want to help in some small way to make the world a better place, which is very Jewish to me,” she says.  “For some people, that is their Judaism.”

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