The first time singer/songwriter Beth Schafer was ever on a bima, she was 11 years old and accompanying the cantor on guitar. That scene unfolded at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan.
A resident of Orlando, Fla., since the early 1990s, Schafer is now a well-known Jewish musician and prayer leader who has toured the country for 16 years, visiting scores of congregations, leading worship, giving concerts, and teaching.
On Sunday, April 19, Schafer, who grew up in Marlboro, will return to her hometown and lead Temple Rodeph Torah’s third annual “Rock Shabbat” fund-raising concert.
“I’m looking forward to this show. It will be wonderful to see old friends who are still here and used to seeing me with a guitar in hand,” said Schafer. “I had great friends and have fond memories of our hangouts — Marlboro Pizza, Manalapan Diner, Manasquan Beach — the usual.”
Schafer said she made her national debut as a performer in 1999 at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, held in Orlando.
Fourteen years later, in San Diego, she became the first woman producer for a URJ biennial event with a Saturday evening program titled “Extraordinary Women Shaping Reform Judaism.”
“It was a huge production involving Anat Hoffman of the Israeli Religious Action Center, a 100-voice choir, 10-piece band, six soloists, and original art and video,” said Schafer.
Schafer has also performed at center court for an Orlando Magic basketball game and was invited to play for President Obama during his campaign.
“I write, I perform, I worship, and I teach,” she said. “It’s really all one thing. Maybe most important, I continue to learn.
“When I perform music, I often tell stories,” she added. “When I pray, I often interject my own compositions. When I teach, I learn. My overarching goal is always to bring people closer to one another, to their Jewish heritage, and to God.”
She does this, Schafer said, by aiming to write “memorable, singable songs that tell relevant human stories and reflect our liturgy in a contemporary, accessible way.”
In her early days in Orlando, she became the cantorial soloist for a 700-family Reform congregation. Four years later, she was asked to help out Temple Shir Shalom, a start-up congregation on the other side of town. That led to 13 years of service as the temple’s sole spiritual leader — “unordained but with formal training in clinical pastoral care,” she said.
Now, said Schafer, she is about to move on again. “I will be the cantorial leader at Temple Sinai in Atlanta, while I continue my education. This is a huge move for me as this is a 1,400-family congregation, a flagship temple of the URJ, and one I am very excited to join professionally. I am in the process of packing up my life, as I begin in Atlanta July 1.”
Schafer will be the lone guest artist at the April 19 concert, said Temple Rodeph Torah’s Cantor Joanna Alexander. But, the cantor added, “I will also be in the program; Beth has invited me to join her on the song ‘Ata Kadosh.’” In addition, Alexander said, the TRT Junior Choir will participate.
Unlike the temple’s ongoing series of Rock Shabbat services, the Sunday concert is not a service, Alexander stressed — even though some of the music will be religious in tone and feeling. “The main way this will differ is that it is not set in the context of a liturgical order and it is not for the purpose of worship,” she explained. Instead, it is designed to raise funds for the Rock Shabbat effort.
Following the concert, members of the audience will have an opportunity to meet Schafer in an informal setting, said Alexander.