April 13, 2011
Nancy Rokos/Staff Photographer
Sandra Messinger of Willingboro is the cantor at Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel. "I see my job as creating an atmosphere that encourages participation and shows everyone that there is joy in prayer."
Music has been a part of Sandra Messinger's life from the time she was a child growing up in Willingboro.
It led her to studies in jazz and opera in New York and Rome, and the potential for a career onstage. But something was lacking, she said during a recent interview, "and I didn't know what it was."
Surrounded by songs and piano playing in her music-loving family, Messinger began to study music and pick out basic chords and tunes on the piano when she was barely 4.
Later, in the performing arts department of the Willingboro public schools, her talent was developed and encouraged. She danced and sang, and played the flute and piccolo, which remain her favorite instruments.
Music performance was the focus of her classes at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. After graduation, more music studies followed at the International Academy in Rome.
Messinger was encouraged to study opera but resisted at first, choosing jazz instead. Eventually, the beauty of opera and the star status that opera singers are accorded won her over.
"It was all about me. I admit I liked the adulation. I was the center of attention, the diva," the Willingboro woman said.
But when the applause stopped, the feeling that something was not quite right began to edge its way into her consciousness.
She soon would find a new way to express herself.
"Cantor Sandra Messinger at Adath Emanu-El" Nancy Rokos/Staff Photographer
"I've been here since I was 5," Messinger said. "I received my religious training here. It's my home.""
In 1997, Richard Levine, then head rabbi at Adath Emanu-El on Elbo Lane in Mount Laurel, needed a cantor and asked Messinger if she could fill in as needed. Since the congregation originated in Willingboro and had been her spiritual home for her entire life, she agreed. Three years later, she was performing cantor duties at
the temple full time.
"I've been here since I was 5," Messinger said. "I received my
religious training here. It's my home."
Still, the prospect was daunting.
"I was terrified," she said.
Messinger saw the cantor's role as very different from being onstage playing a character in an opera. Onstage, she could hide behind the person she was portraying. A cantor can't do that.
"It was very foreign to me. In an opera, you are the character. As cantor, it's you," she said.
Over time, with experience, she grew into the position and learned to deal with her new responsibility to lead the congregation in musical prayer.
"I see my job as creating an atmosphere that encourages participation and shows everyone that there is joy in prayer," she said.
Before the regular Friday night Sabbath services, Messinger selects the music that will be sung. She then confers with the rabbi, Stacy Offner, who approves her choices. She will do the same for next week's Passover observance.
Passover, which begins at sundown Monday, is the most family centered holiday for Jews, she said.
"It's about taking time to be a family," Messinger said
The most important part of the services for Messinger is the cantor's song, which follows the rabbi's sermon and affirms its central message.
Messinger likes to arrive at the synagogue early on Fridays to attend to administrative duties in her small office near the sanctuary. Then she checks on the music for that night and warms up.
During services, she wears business attire and a kippah, the wire and beaded skullcap she pins to the back of her long, dark hair. She also dons a tallit, or prayer shawl, which fulfills an Old Testament commandment that we should wrap ourselves while in the sanctuary.
In addition to her formal role during services, the cantor directs three choirs at the reform synagogue, which has about 500 families in its congregation.
Divided by age, the three choirs - youth, teen and adult - come to the music with different perspectives.
"I try to teach the youngest children about life and the holidays. I show them the calming, healing side of prayer," Messinger said.
The life lessons go deeper with the teens; for the adults, she
has a special message: Everyone can sing.
"Some people tell me they can't sing, but I tell them they are having trouble accessing their voice," Messinger said.
The cantor continues to study her art and spends several days every week in New York, where she meets with her voice coach.