When is a cantor not a cantor? In Cecelia Beyer’s case, it’s when she takes on her new position at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield.
For though she is a classically trained lyric soprano and concentrated in sacred music at the Jewish Theological Seminary, she is joining the temple clergy not as a hazan, but as associate rabbi.
Beyer said that coming to TBAY is an ideal position for someone with her qualifications. Besides heading the Conservative congregation’s religious school, her new portfolio includes many of the traditional roles of a cantor, including teaching music and serving as the congregation’s shliha tzibur (prayer leader). She will also lead the religious school and Teen Institute.
With the number of cantor positions at congregations in the country shrinking, Beyer acknowledged that some trained cantors might object to the notion of a rabbi essentially taking on the role of cantor at a synagogue, in addition to other duties. But her peers at JTS understand, she said. “I studied with them and they know how much I respect the cantorate. Music expresses emotions that words alone cannot. So in the prayer world, musical choices matter. If I hum Kol Nidrei, it’s going to make you feel a certain way.”
In fact, Beyer considered staying at JTS an extra two years after her ordination in 2010 to formally become a hazan, but decided it was time to move on.
“I’m basically a Jewish life cheerleader,” she told NJJN in an interview in her office shortly after she began her tenure on July 1. “I have a passion for Judaism and that’s my gift. My job is to share it through singing, dancing, teaching, laughing, and being open.”
“Synagogues in general do not need virtuoso cantors anymore,” said TBAY’s longtime cantor, Richard Nadel, 57, who served the congregation for 32 years and became cantor emeritus on Aug. 1. “They need someone to lead participatory prayers, and they need someone with an educational background to run the religious school.”
In fact, the position of associate rabbi was created through a restructuring that also involved the departure after more than 12 years of education director Gail Buchbinder.
“Clergy have to be more multifunctional,” said Rabbi Mark Mallach, senior rabbi at TBAY, adding that in recent years the cantorial school at JTS revamped its curriculum to emphasize a wider range of professional skills.
Beyer, said Mallach, “brings amazing tools, skills, and capabilities — musically, liturgically, educationally, and ritually. She brings the enthusiasm to engage the broad spectrum of our members and fulfill our mission of building a more sacred community.”
Beyer knew Mallach through their shared affiliation with JTS’s Rabbinic Training Institute, which Beyer refers to affectionately as “rabbi camp.” Mallach approached her when the congregation was seeking to fill the associate rabbi position, she said.
Beyer grew up Cherry Hill at Congregation Beth El, which has since moved to Voorhees. Active in Young Judaea, she attended Camp Tel Yehuda, and worked at Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake as well as Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. She was active in the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater. When she graduated, she continued her involvement, joining a synagogue and teaching in the religious school. “I was one of those rare 20-somethings active in my shul,” she said.
The rabbinate is actually her second career. She started as an attorney, with a degree from George Washington University Law School. But she was on her way to an interview on Sept. 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers fell. After that, she said, “there were no jobs to be had.”
She was teaching Hebrew school, as she always had, and one weekend while at a distant relative’s bar mitzva, the light went off. “I was so proud of this kid I’d never met,” she recalled. “I wanted to be the person communicating with that kid in front of the congregation.” When she revealed to her husband that she wanted to attend rabbinical school, she said, his response was, “Finally!”
“I love music and I’ve always taken voice lessons. But in the end, I really wanted a rabbinical education,” Beyer said. “I felt I was lacking in my knowledge of rabbinic texts, and I wanted to work as a rabbi/teacher/preacher.”
During rabbinical school she served as a cantorial soloist at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. Following her ordination, she served Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, NY.
She and her husband, Gabe Rosenberg, and their two cats live in Springfield, around the corner from TBAY.
She envisions her role as rabbi as one focusing on helping people reach their personal potential while the congregation reaches its potential.
“We always look at the benchmarks of observance as kashrut and Shabbat. But what about the realm of menschlichkeit? That’s really important,” she said. “Often someone will say, ‘I’m not really religious,’ and that’s the person who will put money in the tzedaka box every time and takes his kids to religious school every day.”