“I want to be the bridge between what people need in a modern world—spiritually, emotionally and in their community—and what we have to offer from our thousands of years of tradition,” says Sarah Beck-Berman.
While this marriage between the ancient and the modern is key to Beck-Berman’s approach as cantorial soloist, she believes there’s more than one way to bring the two together, and it’s up to her to find what works for the congregation. It’s a concept she’s exploring as a cantorial student with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
“We cover Jewish history in all the different denominations, how they got to where they are and what kind of music they have,” she says. “And then there’s a focus on trying to figure out what a congregation’s needs are in terms of making the prayers and the services connected and relatable to the people in the congregation. We try to be spiritual facilitators, rather than just music boxes that turn on and turn off.”
While some of her fellow cantorial students have part-time roles in synagogues, most aren’t as integrated in the congregation as Beck-Berman has become. In addition to singing in services, she works with music director Natan Berenshteyn and the various choirs, and assists in training bar and bat mitzvah students.
She’s also learning the intricacies of singing in holiday services, such as the High Holy Days, which are known for their challenging music.
“The music is very complex and it requires being very connected with the choir,” she says. “And also, on the spiritual side, getting into the mentality of the holiday. There are extraordinarily powerful, deep words and ideas within those prayers. I’m trying to guide people through the process of thinking about our own mortality in a way that’s helpful, rather than draining or exhausting.”
That emotional potential of music is at the core of what drew Beck-Berman to the music of worship, even from a young age. Her father is a rabbi and Beck-Berman always enjoyed leading services and reading from the Torah while growing up.
Even though her background is more traditional, she’s not afraid to innovate today. As she says, it’s all about what speaks to the congregants.
“I use interpretive ways of singing and use different melodies,” she says. “I’m trying to be connected to the words of the prayers and to the people in the congregation. I’m trying to find a marriage between the two.”
Beck-Berman earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Virginia Commonwealth University and is currently enrolled in a nondenominational cantorial program with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She previously worked for Temple Beth-El’s religious school as a librarian, music teacher and instructor, as well as a cantorial intern with her father’s synagogue in Petersburg, Va.