Although she has had a passion for music since she was a little girl, Vera Broekhuysen didn’t always know she wanted to be a cantor. In fact, when she finished college at the University of Toronto, she decided to train to become a doctor. “I hopped around a bit. First doing an extra year of undergraduate, and then enrolling in a pre-medical program after college. During one of those years I was in the program, I spent the summer in Rochester at a folk art festival; I loved to make music there. There were songbooks and instruments everywhere, and I was just enjoying making music again. I went home ready to pursue my second year of pre-med, but I wasn’t excited about it.”
Scrolling through Facebook one day, Vera saw that a friend from her time in Rochester was searching for someone to join him on a road trip across the American West. With little to lose, Vera took the opportunity and found it to be an awakening. “It was truly a spiritual experience from California to Nevada, to Glacier National Park, Oregon, Utah and beyond. We finished together in New Mexico and Texas, where we then parted ways. I drove home by myself along the bottom of the country. Having this independent time on top of the trip with my friend was really significant.”
During one portion of her trip in Atlanta, Vera had a particularly life-changing experience. “I went to a service where a grandfatherly like man led a sermon called the Lupine Lady. He talked about traveling to faraway lands, meeting a lot of different people, finding something that would make the world more beautiful and then passing that along to others. It really spoke to me.” Vera realized that what made the world more beautiful for her was singing.
Growing up in Cambridge in a multi-faith family, Broekhuysen was raised to be Jewish, but not extremely observant; when she decided to become a cantor, she wasn’t too familiar with what it would entail. “No one else in my family worked in the Jewish space. A lot of them are in the medical field. I didn’t know much about being a cantor, but I knew I wanted to study it.” Her passions took her to Hebrew College, a non-denominational seminary in Newton, where she was ordained this past June, earning her Cantorial Studies degree and also graduating with a Masters in Jewish Education.
Her transition from Graduate School to work was smooth, but eventful. “Interviewing at Temple Emanu-el in Haverhill, I knew it was the right fit. There were mutual good feelings; it’s really a wonderful congregation,” she smiles. “I was hired in July, while expecting my second child in the fall. Much like anyone starting a new job, I was a bit apprehensive, and I just wanted to make it through the High Holidays before giving birth!”
Cantor Vera and her husband welcomed their second son, Benjamin, on Shmini Atzeret, just in time for her wishes to be met. After eight weeks of maternity leave, she returned to working part-time, two to three days a week. “When you have a new baby, the world changes a lot, your level of sleep goes down,” she laughs, “but the short days give me a lot of flexibility to be with my boys and also to be at work.” She’s grateful to have family that can watch her baby and two-and-a-half-year-old some days, while sending them to daycare others.
A typical week for Cantor Vera often consists of meetings, bar/bat mitzvah tutoring, adult learning and Shabbat services. Teaching both children and adults is one of the best parts of what she does. “In general, the power of using drum, guitar and a room full of music is an exciting experience. One of my favorite things to do is to teach bar/bat mitzvah students the grammatical system of trope, rather than just having them memorize their Torah portion. This way they learn the right way to chant and the right melody directly. It’s amazing to see them become empowered and then carry those skills with them.”
It is the multifaceted spirit of Judaism that really engages Cantor Vera daily. “The thing that is both valuable in my training and my job is a real freedom to explore the breadth and depth of Judaism in my own way. There are as many ways to practice Judaism as there are Jews!” She laughs. “I am lucky to work at a synagogue with a diversity of Jewish practice and liturgy from Reform to Conservative.”