Cantor Ruth Berman Harris has been earning paychecks for leading services since she was 15, years before a cantorial school even existed in her native Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I think it was what I was born to be,” she said. “I became a bat mitzvah, and I never left the synagogue.”
Which particular synagogue has changed over the years, though — from Argentina to Israel to the United States. In August, Harris joined Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, a Conservative congregation serving 500 member families through campuses in Pasadena and Arcadia.
“She’s made an immediate connection,” said temple president Matt Ober. “She has experienced very different synagogues in very different places and has a keen understanding of human nature and people and what people need to be able to pray more deeply and be more connected to spirituality, and that’s what we all kind of seek.”
Harris, 40, said that she’s been influenced by each of her geographic and cultural stops on the way to Southern California.
“Who I am in the core understanding of what a cantor should be, I got it from growing up in Argentina,” she said. “The vision of the chazzan being an emissary of the congregation instead of a performer is something embedded in the fiber of who I am. We don’t perform; we daven.”
Harris said that when she began leading services in Buenos Aires as a teenager, she was the first female in the country to do so. She wasn’t ordained until 1996, after the Rabbinical Seminary of Latin America started its cantorial program.
Most congregants were supportive of having a woman as a spiritual leader, she said.
“Some people thought it was a little bizarre, but, for the most part, people were very welcoming,” she said.
After Harris moved to Israel in 1996, she studied at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and led services at three synagogues.
Harris said her experience in Israel taught her that Hebrew is a language that is vibrant and alive. It’s a lesson that remains evident as she effortlessly sprinkles Hebrew words into everyday conversation. (No slouch when it comes to linguistics, Harris is fluent in English, Spanish and Hebrew, and can understand and sing in Yiddish and Ladino.)
Her time in Israel also connected her to Jewish culture and continuity in a very real sense.
“Israel gave me a sense of belonging to a bigger picture,” she said.
But splitting her time among three shuls made it impossible to put down roots in any one of them. So her family made the decision in 2001 to move to America, where she served congregations in Wisconsin and Arizona before coming to Pasadena.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is thrilled to have her.
“She’s amazing,” he said. “She energizes a room when she walks into it.”
Just as important, Grater said they already have established a strong partnership.
“We both believe in participatory prayer,” he said. “Our vision of prayer, of a deep and meaningful and rich prayer experience, is something that I cherish. ... She can now be the voice for that.”
Already, Harris, a mother of three, said she feels at home at the Pasadena synagogue.
“I think I’ve been preparing and growing and professionally developing to be able to arrive at this partnership, which is ultimately what I’ve always wanted,” she said.
And there’s another bonus to landing where she has.
“Looking at the beautiful mountains, it pretty much feels as close to God as I can be.”
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