Sara LeMesh (she/her)
Year-In-Israel Cantorial Student, HUC/New York
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC.
My Jewish journey was circuitous, full of twists and turns, but I wouldn’t change it for a second. I am a trained opera singer and classical pianist and began intensively studying music around the age of eight years old. I was a total theater and arts kid growing up and relished every opportunity to perform, especially in Shakespeare plays. I studied vocal performance at Rice University and then pursued a master’s degree in vocal performance at Bard College-Conservatory of Music in upstate New York. During these six intensive years, I spent a lot of time performing and studying throughout the United States and Europe. These experiences included a French language immersion program in the South of France; a fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Festival; performing in operas at the Aspen Music Festival & School (where I met Sofia Vergara!); and working with a famous Italian bass-baritone in Salzburg at the University Mozarteum Salzburg (where I booked my stay via fax machine and lived with a woman who only spoke German!).
Throughout these years, I continued to perform volunteer recitals for isolated communities in the Bay Area. I started singing concerts for marginalized populations when I was thirteen – it was actually connected to my Bat Mitzvah Project – but I continued this outreach throughout graduate school. These musical experiences remained the most precious to me and eventually informed my decision to become a cantor. But it took me many years, essentially my entire twenties, before I would fully consider the cantorate. I pursued a variety of vocations post-graduate school, including starting a tech company with my husband. We created an events marketplace for assisted living facilities to easily discover and book talent, such as fitness classes, concerts, and art lessons. After performing at San Quentin, a maximum-security prison in Northern California, and leading a workshop on the healing powers of music, I started considering what it would be like to become a cantor – but only in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until a family member suddenly died and I was asked to lead the Jewish funeral that I recognized my deep connection to Judaism and my own unique relationship to Jewish music.
Ultimately, I am becoming a cantor because I believe in music as a spiritual vessel. Music is a messenger, a connector, and a healer. My personal Jewish identity is closely tied to my family’s Romanian-Jewish roots and I feel strongest as a communicator through song when sharing Jewish liturgical and folk music. While studying at HUC I look forward to deepening my love for my ancestral language, Yiddish, while expanding my knowledge of Eastern European historic music practices.
Please describe a day in the life of a Year-In-Israel student.
A typical day in Israel involves lots of different classes and learning experiences. During the fall semester, my favorite days have been Tuesdays because they include morning Tefillah as a student body, Hebrew, and Cantorial Workshop. I also studied Beit Midrash and Intro to Mishnah on Tuesdays, subjects with which I had little familiarity prior to beginning my studies at HUC, but that I have now grown to appreciate. I admit my bias in proclaiming my love of Cantorial Workshop, but it truly is a special space for the cantorial students to experience diverse repertoire, sing for one another, and explore a variety of liturgical and popular styles. During this semester alone, we delved into Israeli pop music, traditional and extended Hazzanut, nusach, classical liturgical music, and contemporary liturgical settings. It’s been a true delight!
Please tell us about any special activities, projects, or initiatives in which you are involved.
I am privileged to be a T’ruah Year-in-Israel Fellow while I am living in Jerusalem. I have thoroughly appreciated the experiences T’ruah has offered and admire how they include students from all seminaries to participate in their lecture series and day-long tours.
In addition, I will be attending the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont in the summer of 2022. During the festival, musicians spend seven weeks exchanging ideas and rehearsing in depth some 250 chamber music works. The entire HUC community is invited to stop by and listen to some music!
What is your favorite HUC moment to date?
I had been extremely anxious about chanting Torah. Perhaps it was residual anxiety from my Bat Mitzvah and the sudden recollection that my parents invited 250 guests to my coming-of-age event. In any case, I was nervous about these courses at the beginning of the semester. During Sukkot, I hunkered down and studied the cantillation materials in preparation for a final exam in which we would submit a recording of ourselves chanting Torah. I had an “Aha” moment when I realized, “Wow, this is really beautiful, and this is part of my Jewish heritage. These trope markings are ancient, like hieroglyphics, and I can actually read them! Woah.” I’ve never looked back with cantillation and actually sight-read a huge chunk of Exodus a few weeks ago!
How would you describe HUC in one word?
Invitation: because each day you’re invited to dig a little deeper and step into who you want to become as a future Jewish leader.