2017-08-31 / News

Biddeford synagogue gains ordained cantor

By Sarah Beth Campisi
Contributing Writer

BIDDEFORD – Arundel resident Beth Strassler, 62, is the new cantor at Congregation Etz Chaim in Biddeford.

A cantor is an ordained clergy who leads the musical aspects of Jewish worship service.

“Since almost all of the prayers are sung, the responsibility is a big one,” Strassler said.

Strassler has been involved in the synagogue since fall 1982, at the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Strassler’s family moved to Maine in 1982 and have been with Congregation Etz Chaim ever since.

The Strassler family has become a staple of the congregation, with Strassler’s new position of cantor, and her husband David Strassler as president of the synagogue.

“David has a terrific board of directors to work with as president. As the congregation’s cantor, I am working with both the Ritual Committee and the Hiring Committee to define and expand the role,” Strassler said.

When the Strassler family began attending services at Etz Chaim, the congregation was struggling with attendance and membership. Strassler and her husband knew they had to do something to revive the community. They have attended seminars and consulted with experts to find ways to help the congregation.

“We have both been deeply involved with the community as volunteers since we moved here,” Strassler said.

Strassler and her husband have been teachers for the congregation’s Hebrew School, to teach young Jewish people from three to 12 about their culture and religion.

“We have enjoyed the learning together and the collaboration very much,” Strassler said.

Strassler will lead High Holiday services herself this year.

“I am still pinching myself,” Strassler said. “When I am leading services at Congregation Etz Chaim, I feel at home, with purpose and closest to God. My voice sounds its best. I feel inspired.”

To become officially ordained, Strassler began her journey when she enrolled in a multi-denominational program at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts. In 2011, Strassler applied to the ordination program and had to commit to being a full time student. Strassler spent nights away from home or commuted twice a week according to her class schedule to achieve her goal.

Strassler has completed a Masters in Jewish Studies and cantorial ordination and became officially ordained at Etz Chaim on July 1.

“I am usually an optimistic, confident person. However, during this course of study, there were many times when I felt discouraged. The amount I needed to learn, the precision of the learning and the fast pace was often overwhelming. I kept reminding myself that I was doing what I was meant to do,” Strassler said.

Strassler’s ordination has created more activity in the synagogue’s summers. There were few services offered during summer at Etz Chaim, but Strassler’s contract requires a 12-month commitment to leading Friday night and Saturday morning services.

During Strassler’s first Friday night service, she accompanied the singing with her guitar.

“It has a different flavor than our more traditional Saturday morning service, which may appeal to a different group of people,” Strassler said. “Usually the singing is unaccompanied. Well, the singing was robust and joyful.”

The next Friday night service will be offered Aug. 25, at 7 p.m.

“I can only begin to describe how supportive the synagogue community has been throughout my years of study. Many people kept encouraging me, reminding me how much I was learning and developing my voice along the way. When classes were discouraging, I would lead a Saturday morning service and the community built me up again,” Strassler said.

The Jewish High Holidays are in late September, for which Etz Chaim will hold services. Rosh Hashanah services will be held Sept. 20 through Sept. 22. Yom Kippur services will be held Sept. 29 and 30. For more information, visit etzchaimme.org.

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