Once Sarah Freudenberger knew being a cantor was a job, she was all in. Recently, as she was packing for her family’s move from Boca Raton to Salem, her mother brought over a treasured memento from her bat mitzvah: the sign-in board where guests wrote something personal to the celebrant.
“Everyone wrote, ‘Wow, you did such a good job. You should really become a cantor.’ Even my cantor wrote, ‘If you want to become a cantor, you’ve got the goods,’” she said with a laugh by phone from Florida.
Sarah, her husband, Peter, and their two young daughters are making the move north so she can become the new cantor at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.
The pivotal moment in her journey to becoming a cantor came as a 16-year-old on a “March of the Living” high school trip to Poland and then Israel. Every day on the trip, the students held minyans with different denominational “flavors.” Cantor Sarah usually went to the egalitarian service, led by her synagogue’s cantor, who had her sing something during every service.
Each group usually had its own room, but one morning they ran out of space, and her service was held in a corner of the huge, noisy ballroom where everyone ate breakfast. Her cantor told her that after the service, she would sing the Modim prayer.
“There was so much noise, but when I started singing, the room started to quiet down. And then, all you could hear was me – singing. I knew right then this was what I needed to do with my life, that this is what I had to do,” she said.
With the support of her family, synagogue, and high school choir teacher, she was on her way. She studied music education at the University of Miami Frost School of Music with the intent of going to cantorial school after graduating.
While in college, she taught music at a religious school and filled in several times a year as a substitute cantor, particularly for b’nai mitzvah. She didn’t meet the families beforehand; she just showed up on the big day. “I thought the families would wonder who this girl was, but after the service, every single time, I would stand outside the door and they thanked me and said it was marvelous,” she said.
Despite her plan, Cantor Sarah didn’t apply to cantorial school when she was a college senior. She realized she needed a break from school. But, more importantly, she ran into a devastating obstacle: her then boyfriend and future husband was not Jewish. The cantorial seminaries at that time did not accept intermarried couples.
“I didn’t like this policy, and I still don’t,” she said. “It’s not OK. We need to be more welcoming, especially when so many of our population seem to be having these kinds of relationships. Not only that, but the non-Jewish spouses seem to be supporting, participating in, and loving their Jewish families. Why be like that?”
But, once again, kismet was on her side. One day, out of the blue, she received a call from her most recent synagogue in Boca Raton asking her to audition for a full-time cantor position. She got the job. “I was only 21 years old. I didn’t think I had enough experience. I kind of looked like a Barbie doll,” she said.
She started looking for cantorial schools again in 2013 and came across the Aleph Cantorial Program. She was unfamiliar with the trans-denominational approach of the Jewish Renewal movement, but she knew she wanted to be part of a community that was legitimate, respected, and authentically welcoming to interfaith couples.
“That’s one of the things I really love about Shirat Hayam, that we really mean it,” she said of the Swampscott congregation. “We don’t just say that we’re welcoming on the website, we really, really mean it. That’s also what I was looking for in a seminary, and that’s what I found in Aleph,” she said.
“Renewal is an approach that can be utilized in any movement. Students are from diverse movements – Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal. It’s like a cross-denominational seminary,” she said. She learned traditional chants, newer melodies, and a combination of both. “This is what today’s cantor needs to be able to do, because the landscape out there is always changing and always needs to be renewed. That is what Renewal is about. It’s taking the traditional and saying, ‘OK, how can we keep as much as we can and make it really meaningful for people today? It’s really exciting.”
Cantor Sarah and her professional musician husband, Peter, met in the music program at the University of Miami. They have two daughters – Aria (almost 10) and Ada (6). There are a lot of instruments in their house and “tons of singing.” During this past year, Peter and the girls often appeared in her Zoom services as her backup singers and band.
Cantor Sarah loves working with children, and can’t wait to bring her successful children’s choir model to Shirat Hayam. In addition, she teaches ukulele and guitar to kids and mentors teen song leaders. For adults, she has taught b’nai mitzvah (“my mom was in my class!”) and has been involved with an adult choir and band. She has trained Torah chanters and lay service leaders for several years.
Her top priority as she assumes the role of cantor at Shirat Hayam is making the transition as smooth as possible while providing what the congregation wants in their cantor. “That will mean a lot of listening in addition to singing: getting to know all the members at Shirat Hayam; participating in the greater North Shore Jewish community; and becoming involved with the [religious school] and the preschool are all very important,” she said.