Shir Ami in Newtown Hires Julie Berlin as Cantor

Cantor Julie Berlin (Photo by Alan Berlin)

When Julie Berlin interviewed for the cantor job at Shir Ami, she kept hearing that, “Music is really important to us.” Berlin heard it from leaders, and she heard it from members. But she did not stay for a full service during that process.

So, it was not until she got the job and started on July 1 that the 53-year-old understood what they meant. Shir Ami means “song of my people,” as the history page on explains. The congregants at this Newtown synagogue love to sing.

“I’ve seen it on Shabbat even with smaller numbers. Everybody sings,” Berlin said. “And on High Holy Days, when we had a full house, all the more so.”

This was what Berlin was looking for when she set out to find a new job.

“I see my role as a cantor as to share Jewish music with the congregation,” she said.

Shir Ami opened in the late 1970s when Jews started moving to Bucks County. From 1985 to 2018, it had the same cantor: Mark Elson. He is now “cantor emeritus,” according to (He also presided at Berlin’s bat mitzvah in Chicago 40 years ago.)

Coming to a place like this is a new experience for Berlin. Her previous stops were at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and at Temple Beth-El in San Antonio. She was the first cantor at both synagogues. It was on her to establish the musical culture of the congregation and to get the people singing.

She doesn’t have to do that here.

“Coming to a congregation where they’ve had a cantor…they’ve had people who have shared the wealth of Jewish music with them…created a community of singing,” the cantor said.

As a Reform synagogue born in contemporary suburbia, Shir Ami’s musical culture is less traditional than modern. Classical Reform music includes an organ, according to Berlin. The Newtown shul does not have one.

Congregants here prefer “contemporary-sounding music” and “old-time favorites” from summer camp, according to the cantor.

“Music that can be played easily on guitar. Kind of folk-sounding. Guitar and piano,” Berlin said. “There’s a chorus and verse. It’s easy to sing along with.”

Berlin appreciates that. She said that even though she performs music on stage, she doesn’t like the spotlight. She views her job as engaging the congregation and encouraging people to participate.

Cantor Julie Berlin engages the congregation. (Courtesy of Cantor Julie Berlin)

Before a Shabbat service, the cantor tries to keep in mind that people come for different reasons. Some members are attending because “it’s the end of the week and they need that calming down,” Berlin said. Others are showing up because they have a yahrzeit. And some folks just need a “pick me up” in the form of socializing.

“I try to choose music…there are upbeat moments; there are quiet moments; there are singing moments,” Berlin said.

The cantor wanted to leave Temple Beth-El and San Antonio because it was time for a change. Her three kids were older and out of the house. Her husband, Rabbi Alan Berlin, could work remotely.

She was looking for a shul that prioritized people over “financial stuff,” she said. With close to 500 members, Shir Ami is still OK in the financial department.

“The things they do they do because it’s the right thing to do,” Berlin said.

Synagogue leaders came to feel that way about Berlin, too, according to Ellie Short, the president during her interview process. With a large and multigenerational congregation, they wanted someone with experience. Berlin spent 15 years at her previous shul. She ran the bar and bat mitzvah program, doubled the size of the volunteer choir and launched a concert series.

But she had also taken on pastoral responsibilities, such as checking in with the elderly, sick and lonely. From the bar and bat mitzvah program to those check-ins, Berlin connected with every generation. This was what she had set out to do in college when she switched her career path from elementary school music teacher to cantor.

“She just really listens to you,” Short said.

Short explained that Shir Ami’s board of directors wanted more than just a voice in a new cantor. They found that in Berlin. But then they heard her sing.

“Some of us were in tears. Her voice is so beautiful,” Short said. “You can sing with her. It’s just a very clear bell-like tone.”

Berlin is from Chicago, but she hasn’t lived in “this kind of weather” in 25 years, she said. She feels home again…at Shir Ami and in Bucks County.

“It’s a very relaxed feel. We love the green and nature, which is different from where we were,” the cantor said.

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