Cantor Sarah Grabiner '19
Coordinator of Cantorial Studies and Worship for the Year-In-Israel Program
Please tell me about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
Growing up, my local Reform synagogue in London was my second home; I attended services and youth choir, helped at Hebrew school and youth group, and participated in anything else that came along. I was also devoted to my youth movement, RSY-Netzer, the Reform Zionist youth movement in the UK. The other center around which my life revolved was music. I’d learn different instruments and sing and play in every group I could find, from classical choir to salsa band. Despite how committed to my Jewish identity I was, every time someone suggested I become a rabbi it just didn’t feel right, and there weren’t any cantors in the British Reform Movement at that time. We had inspiring rabbis, educators, and music directors, but none of those roles seemed like a fit for me. When I finally discovered what it meant to be a cantor – to be a member of clergy, a spiritual leader, a teacher and interpreter of Jewish text through music – it truly felt like a calling, and since Reform Judaism is where my values and ideology are so clearly expressed, I knew I had to study at HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM).
Please tell me about your role as Coordinator of Cantorial Studies and Worship for the Year-In-Israel Program. What is most rewarding? Is this a new position, and if so, what is most exciting about taking on a new role?
I am just finishing my first academic year in this role, and it has been a whirlwind! Between making aliyah and moving to Israel, and the ups and downs of the ongoing pandemic, it has been a huge privilege to accompany the first-year class of cantorial, rabbinic, and education students as they begin this amazing journey. I particularly enjoy facilitating the prayer life of the Year-In-Israel and reflecting with students as they grow in their role as t’filah leaders. Some come with substantial experience, and for some it’s the first time they’ve stood on the bimah. For everyone, this year marks the beginning of a path towards taking on a particular communal, spiritual role, and I find it so meaningful to be part of that process. I think that this area of my role is even more important and exciting given the moment of change in which we find ourselves concerning prayer and spiritual life in Jewish communities. These few years of the pandemic have raised so many questions about t’filah and spiritual gathering, and I felt these keenly and very practically since I was serving as the cantor of a large Reform community in London during the pandemic. I think this is a more thought-provoking time than ever to be starting out in this vocation of Jewish leadership, and I feel honored to be part of these students’ journeys.
What was your favorite part about being a student at HUC-JIR?
As a student at HUC-JIR, I really loved learning! I took as many classes as I could in my five years and soaked up the phenomenal expertise and wisdom of the faculty both on the Jerusalem and New York campuses. I always tried to remember how fortunate I was to have this time to study, and never take the incredible knowledge that surrounded me for granted. I was also involved in the Soup Kitchen on the New York campus which ran every Monday afternoon, staffed by students and local community volunteers. I was head of the team for a few years and got to know not only volunteers but also guests who came back week after week and really were part of the HUC-JIR New York community. That was a really important part of my time as a student, pairing study with service, and feeling part of a long tradition of HUC-JIR students. I am so glad that NY students are now reviving the Soup Kitchen after it wasn’t able to run during the pandemic.
How does your experience as an HUC-JIR student impact your role today?
I am one of very few members of the YII faculty who are alumni of the exact program we are running, and so I feel that I can relate to these students’ experiences perhaps more in a way that helps me understand where they might be at this moment. Although many aspects of the program and the nature of the Jewish world change over time, there are always some fixed milestones, like getting through your first semester of finals.
Please describe HUC-JIR in one word.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love to swim, especially outside and in cold water. Living in Israel there are plenty of places to be immersed in beautiful bodies of water, but they are not quite as cold as where I used to swim in London, so I am missing that chill thrill!