Cantor Debbi Ballard had made Atlanta her new home and spread her positive energy by freelancing directly to families.
She stated, “Self-directed Judaism is my signature style – because as an independent, I’m able to serve families uniquely – in ways that are meaningful for them. I disliked the boards and management styles of synagogues and wanted to go directly to the heart of the family.”
Guitar in hand, weddings, baby namings, conversions, vow renewals, commitments, funerals, memorials, B’not Mitzvahs, and escorting groups to Israel are all her sweet spot. She performs every service a clergy in a synagogue performs. She also founded Edjewcation Station – an experiential Jewish educational program she is bringing to Atlanta this winter.
Ballard spends a great deal of time getting to know the family – what their Jewish affiliation looks like, and to what they want most to connect. She continued, “Usually, they want to know that what they are doing is OK and want to focus more on meaning and relevance, rather than outdated language and rules. That’s very similar to my own style of Judaism, so we blend really well. I ‘speak their language’ and create interactive, warm, inclusive ceremonies that people love!”
Her career as a cantor evolved later in life at 40. As a teen, she protested the unequal rights of women on the bimah and set her stage as a boundary breaker. She was inspired by Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, who founded a seminary for the “modern independent” spiritual leader, and her future as a cantor was born. Her own interfaith marriage was another impetus.
She recalled, “The unfortunate way my husband and I were treated by the greater Jewish community made me realize there was a need for more positive, accepting spiritual leaders. And after 14 years as a lay leader in my Reform congregation, I kept seeing unhappy families and saying, ‘If I could make my own decisions’…There were so many things I knew I could do differently, that families would seek out. I felt the need to accompany people on their own unique Jewish journeys – helping them seek out what enhanced their Jewish connection, without putting a lot of burden on them. I’ve had a whirlwind 20-year career that has been incredibly impactful and rewarding.”
Ballard is an acoustic singer/song leader, with a Carole King/Joanie Mitchell style. She prefers high energy and soul music, but she doesn’t answer to “classically trained.”
Her favorite prayers are: Vahavta – as the roadmap for building a relationship with G-d, and Hashkiveinu – a morning and evening prayer for peace as a “Jewish tranquilizer.”
“It makes me really feel at peace when I go to sleep,” she said.
Regarding her all-inclusive Israel trips for the past 13 years, she laments the war.
“This has been incredibly painful. I’m afraid for Israel and for our neighbors in Gaza and all innocent humans, but I fully stand against terrorism. I don’t always agree with Israel’s politics, but I’m a Zionist and my commitment to Zionism is strengthened through this war. As of now, my 2024 trips are postponed and that is incredibly sad, but I am confident we will rise above this and return to the land as soon as possible.”
Ballard offers this salve for those affected by war, “It’s OK to be afraid, but it’s also OK to live your life. It’s probably more important than ever to live fully. We never know what tomorrow brings. People today are confused and feeling very alone, and we need to band together to support one another.”
For hobbies, Ballard enjoys cooking. If she wasn’t a cantor, she’d be a caterer.
Regarding the move here, she concluded, “I love the cooler weather, but I like the restaurants better in South Florida. I’m a foodie and am always on the hunt for great restaurants. I also love how much friendlier people are in Atlanta, and how close I am to the mountains. I’m going to love it here!”