Along with leading the congregation in prayer and song, cantor Sharon Steinberg of Temple Beth El in Alexandria also directs choirs, conducts pastoral counseling and community outreach, leads the bar and bat mitzvah program and more. It is a busy life, but the Fairfax resident enjoys it: "Every day I wake up and I feel like I'm making a difference in the world," she said. The former opera singer, installed formally as a cantor in March, brings a strong musical background to her vocation. She is this week's People Profile.
How long have you lived in the area and what brought you here? I've been here for about five years. I moved here on Sept. 1, 2001, which was a little crazy. What brought me here was this position.
Family: I have three boys, 19, 17 and 15.
Education: My first schooling was in Baltimore. I went to Woodmore Elementary School. Then we moved to Westchester County, N.Y. I went to Copper Beach Middle School and Lakeland High School. I have a bachelor's in music from Ithaca College and a master's in music from Indiana University. Both are voice major, piano minor. I began studying for a pastoral counseling degree but have not completed it yet. In September I completed a five-year self-study course to earn the professional credit of cantor. I've been doing this for 15 years as a lay person and in September became certified.
What made you want to become a cantor? There are two passions that I've always had: music and my personal spirituality. As a musician out of college, I sang at churches and synagogues and any time I was in a synagogue the cantor suggested to me to become a cantor. I wanted an opera career so I was teaching at UMBC and Essex Community College, and I thought about becoming a cantor. At Baltimore Hebrew Congregation the cantor taught me how to lead a service and she needed an assistant, so I led services there for about a year. I moved up to New York to make my opera career, which I couldn't seem to get going here, and I had quite a bit of success. I sang a duet recital at Lincoln Center and I won a number of competition and I sang with a great number of opera companies and symphony orchestras. … There came a point where I was frustrated with the opera career because I realized that my dream of fame and fortune only went to very few and there was a lot of luck in it. But more importantly, I realized that even if my dreams came true, I wasn't going to be happy. I wanted a family. So it occurred to me to become a cantor, so I went to the Hebrew Union College, where you study for five years. … An opening at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase came up and they were looking for a Jewish musician who could sing. They weren't looking for a cantor but what was called a cantorial soloist. The rabbi there took me under his wing and taught me all of the clergy parts of the job on top of the parts I already knew, which was the music parts of the job.
Activities/interests/hobbies: I have plenty and I'm looking forward to having time to do them once I retire. I like going to the gym, I like going to concerts and theater. I like to crochet and knit, I like playing board games like Scrabble. I enjoy hanging out.
Have you always been interested in music? From the day I was born. It was very embarrassing when I found out about this, but when I was a little kid my parents would always stand outside my bedroom door, listening to me sing myself to sleep. I started playing violin in third grade and piano in third grade, but the violin didn't interest me. I taught myself guitar as a preteen and led a lot of sing-alongs with my friends. A guidance counselor at my school at the time said that I would always be an ambassador of peace because I would spread the joy of sharing music. I started voice lessons at age 14 because that was my real passion.
What is your favorite place to spend time in the community: Caribou Coffee at Kings Park. There's a whole group of teen musicians, including my sons, who hang out and jam. So I like to sit there and listen to them.
Community concerns: I don't think so, I love living in Fairfax. Although I'd like the traffic to ease up in downtown Fairfax. Another concern I have, but it's universal in the country, is the movement more and more and more to conservatism, and I feel that our rights are being slowly taken from us, piece after piece, especially with the scapegoat of terrorism. It seems to me that that's window dressing to a way to control us more. So that's a big concern.
How is music a tool for prayer? Music is a double-layered way to communicate with people. If you think of the words as the intellect, the music part is the emotional expression of the words. When you say, "Sing unto God a new song," it's a special way to communicate. We usually sing or we talk, and this is a holy way to reach God because we're doing both. So God is getting all of us. It's also a wonderful peacemaking tool. We have a gospel choir here once a year and my choir sings with theirs. We don’t interact much during the rest of the year but we are very, very close when we are working together because music joins us. Music also unifies the congregation: it focuses them, it allows them to go into their own space for their own prayer and it joins the voices together so our prayer is magnified.
Are there any cantors you particularly admired? Cantor Gail Hirschenfang is the first woman cantor I ever heard. Cantor Mikael Manevich. I sang with him in a choir in New Jersey for a number of years and he was hired by Washington Hebrew. He's been a big influence on me over the years. Cantor Sam Berman trained me to do the high holidays.
What kind of music is on your radio? I like 60s, 70s and 80s music and I like the classical channels. But when music is your vocation, it's surprising, you're not involved with it as your avocation. I don't like to be a spectator, I like to be in the action.
If you could go anywhere on a road trip, where would you go? New York City. I love the city.
Personal goals: I'd like to finish my pastoral counseling degree. There's a self-study course for the rabbinate and I've been thinking about doing that.
— Lea Mae Rice