Beth Schafer has a lot to smile about. She recently landed the job of her dreams as the Bunzl Family cantorial chair at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs after spending a long time working toward it.
“I think to a certain degree we courted each other, at least informally,” Schafer said during an afternoon interview in her office.
An off-the-cuff conversation with one of the rabbis at the temple turned into a yearlong exploration of working there, Schafer recalled. She had visited occasionally as an artist in residence and said she had “been friends with these rabbis for decades. I’ve always been impressed with the place, with the breadth of programming, the depth of its staff.”
In announcing her hiring, Temple Sinai President Scott Zucker wrote: “For the past 13 years, (Schafer) has led Temple Shir Shalom in Central Florida as their sole spiritual leader. She used music to increase spirituality and meaning in worship, which we look forward to her bringing to Temple Sinai.”
Zucker added that Schafer has been “a constant and vital force in the Union of Reform Judaism through her music and teaching abilities.”
She may be new to Atlanta, but Schafer is no novice in the field of music, liturgical or otherwise. Her first album came out in 1997, and she now has seven of them available on iTunes. She formed a band and toured the country.
She attended the University of Miami on a jazz scholarship and received a degree in the theory of composition. “I got to be pretty good. I had decent guitar chops, and schools are always interested in a chick who can shred a little bit. My guitar skills have always taken the lead for me, then I would say writing, then my voice, in that order.”
A lifelong musician, Schafer at first had her sights set on writing music for television and film. “I did a stint in digital media at Full Sail (Center for the Recording Arts in Winter Park, Fla.) and helped develop their interactive media program and projects,” she said. Schafer was also a beta tester for computer software such as Adobe Acrobat and Finale 1. “I really began taking those skills and turning them to the Jewish market and began writing liturgical music.”
Schafer’s national debut as a performer came in 1999 in Orlando at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism. In 2013 in San Diego, she became the first woman to produce the convocation’s Saturday night show. “It’s the largest gathering of Jews in the country,” she said. “Six thousand people come to this thing, and it moves around from city to city.”
Her considerable experience will fit right in at Temple Sinai. “I see myself as the person who can help funnel all that into a musical setting that evolves the worship to another level,” Schafer said. “As much as we always want everything to be prayerful, and the prayers are at the center of what we do in the sanctuary, our population is used to very well-produced music, whether it’s live or on an iPod. I think we’re missing an opportunity if we don’t take those expectations and bring them into the sanctuary.
“It’s not enough to just sing a pretty melody. What’s going to support that melody musically? What instruments are we going to use? How does the music work as a vehicle to move from spoken word to sung prayer? Can the music be the connective tissue for all of it? How are we going to orchestrate our services? It can be very prayerful, but it just has to be done in a sensitive way.”
She said Temple Sinai is a big place, so “it should have a big sound. And I’m chomping at the bit to develop that.”