One year ago, Shulie Hersh was in Jerusalem, joining the small but growing cadre of women cantors helping to forge a pluralistic environment in Israel.
This year finds her in a fully accepting environment, singing at Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford.
Hersh, a fourth-year cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY, joined the staff at the Conservative congregation just before Rosh Hashana. It is her first congregational role since returning from study in Israel and interning at two synagogues there, Kehillat Moreshet Avraham in Jerusalem and Kehillat Eshel Avraham in Be’er Sheva. She led Shabbat and festival services, reading the megillat Ester on Purim and leading song sessions.
The Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel — there are just over 50 — are seeking a foothold among the public and equitable funding and respect from Israel’s Orthodox-dominated state religious establishment.
“Fortunately, my experience was extremely positive in both synagogues,” Hersh told NJ Jewish News in an e-mail interview. “I think that we are making strides in terms of women’s involvement in synagogue life in Israel. For example, Women of the Wall” — a group that conducts prayers at the Kotel in Jerusalem — “is a very strong organization that is not afraid to stand up for women’s religious rights. The more support we give to them, the more positive steps we take in gaining more of a voice for female religious leadership.”
New as she is to the profession, her roots go deep. Hersh, 27, grew up in Upper Nyack, NY, the daughter of a rabbi. “I’ve been singing since I was able to talk, and I’ve been attending synagogue since I was a baby,” she said. “I felt natural singing in shul because I observed my father conducting services and my mother chanting Torah from the bima, so naturally, I wanted to be like them.”
After finishing her undergraduate degree a couple of years back, cantorial school seemed the natural next step. “In terms of becoming a hazzan, blending my passion for singing with prayer just made sense,” she said. “I feel complete fulfillment in being able to express spirituality through prayerful song in the synagogue.”
Hersh said the year in Israel proved pivotal in her education and her identity as a Jew. She studied at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which gave her the opportunity to explore “what it really means to live a Jewish life, praying three times a day, studying text, and observing Shabbat in the holiest city in the world.”
The CY connection changed her life in another way; she met her husband, Jordan, in the CY Beit Midrash. They spent their first year of marriage in Jerusalem, while Jordan was studying at Mechon Schechter for his second year of study with the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary. They live now in White Plains, NY, and he is doing his fourth year at JTS.
This summer, Hersh worked as rosh tefila — head of prayer — at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. One of the highlights for her was watching the students lead Friday night services by the lake. “It gave me a sense of pride and fulfillment that is unique to this kind of work,” she said.
She has been enjoying TBEMC just as much. “I love the sense of joy people seem to feel when they attend services that I lead,” she said. “I love that I can inspire people to come to synagogue again. I love the spiritual aspect of the work, in that I become a vessel for holy prayer and song, lifting up people’s prayers and being able to move them beyond words.”
Evidently, the feeling is mutual. “In addition to her beautiful voice, she has a beautiful soul that shines through when she leads services,” said the temple’s Rabbi Ben Goldstein. “People have come up to me again and again to explain how her voice and her presence lit up our High Holy Day services.”
He said Hersh has already mastered a skill even seasoned clergy sometimes struggle with — managing to be “accessible and personable while maintaining her professionalism.”