Riverdale Temple cantor rediscovers herself in music

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It all started at a funeral.

Inbal Sharrett-Singer was living in New York working various jobs, when a family friend reached out needing a cantor for a memorial service of someone who had just passed away. Sharrett-Singer had never led prayers for a funeral before.

“I came to this funeral, and I was really scared,” she said. “I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I was terrified.”

But thankfully, Sharrett-Singer had help, learning which psalms to schedule, and how to perform specific duties expected of a cantor leading songs and prayers through the service.

Once the fear subsided, Sharrett-Singer felt something she didn’t expect — unity, even comfort. The beauty of the service made her realize that although she wasn’t yet formally trained as a cantor, what she could provide was important not only to the family, but to herself.

“That was the moment that I felt that this is really something unique that I should do,” Sharrett-Singer said. “I still wasn’t sure 100 percent that I should do it, but that was the moment. That was the moment.”

Getting together

Luckily she had some help in her own journey becoming a cantor, thanks in part to the fact her future brother-in-law was already serving a synagogue in such a capacity. Cantor Daniel Singer guided her into the role that would lead her to Riverdale Temple.

“I owe him a lot of things,” Sharrett-Singer said of her brother-in-law.

A cantor combines music with prayers, and it’s that music that has inspired Sharrett-Singer to organize a November fundraiser concert for Riverdale Temple, “Cantor and Friends,” where three other cantors will join Sharrett-Singer alongside three performers from New York’s theatre scene.

“When cantors get together, it’s loud, and it’s joyful, and we sing,” she said.

Sharrett-Singer didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but it was a traditional one. Holidays were very important. “Not Shabbat, but holidays.”

Growing up in Israel, Sharrett-Singer had a large family who would gather for holidays to sing and celebrate together.

“I was born into a family of politics in Israel, and music, and so I was steeped into this environment,” she said. “I don’t think I understood or appreciated how important it was to me until later on.”

Growing the family

To this day, she said, Passover is Sharrett-Singer’s favorite holiday. Her grandfather, the patriarch of the family, has his own version of the Haggada — a narrative from the Torah book of Exodus typically recited during the holiday — editing out what he felt wasn’t meaningful to the family.

“I always felt that I had a little more belief in me,” Sharrett-Singer said. “And I was happy that my mom took me, since I was 12, to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. We went to the Iraqi synagogue (in Israel). It was very, very beautiful.”

Sharrett-Singer’s mother was a huge influence not only in her spirituality but also in her love of music. She managed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and often brought her daughter to rehearsals, where Sharrett-Singer listened to opera singers and musicians perform.

“My mom also just adores cantorial music. So she took me to listen to cantors, and when I moved to New York, she told me to listen to this cantor and that cantor,” Sharrett-Singer said. “To this day, she’s very excited about cantors. All sacred music is beautiful to my mom, and I think she passed that love to me. I find beauty in sacred music of all religions.”

Sharrett-Singer’s love extends past just sacred music, however. She loves Queen and classic rock, as well as Israeli music and show tunes. And that influence has been felt at the 4545 Independence Ave., synagogue, where Sharrett-Singer has focused on adjusting the musical style at Riverdale Temple since she started there in 2015.

Music brought Sharrett-Singer closer to her mother, but it’s also how she met her husband, Jonathan. Shortly after she moved to New York in 2006, she started attending a Shabbat service in Manhattan targeted toward young men and women.

“All the prayers were sung to covers of the Beatles and Phish,” Sharrett-Singer said. “Everything was really rocking, and very spiritual, and lots of young people.”

Jonathan played guitar at the service, and the two recognized each other from past meetings. Eventually, she started singing at the services.

“And then we started talking,” Sharrett-Singer said. “And, you know, one thing lead to another.”

She’s maintained the energy of that service here in the Bronx, bringing new instruments and styles into the synagogue over the past four years, including a new take on more traditional fare.

Like the prayer that welcomes Shabbat —“L’cha Dodi.”

“I start to sing with just the percussion,” she said. “In the second verse, the keyboard enters. And then the percussion. It’s just so fun, it’s like a calypso rhythm. Almost like a lambada.”

The music itself encourages those in the congregation to stand up and dance. Including her three children, who accompany her to services on holidays and are starting to adopt her love for music. They love all things Disney, Sharrett-Singer said, as well as all of the special songs used during the holidays.

Doing some real good

It’s easy to get lost in music, but then reality gets in the way — like a much-needed repair for Riverdale Temple’s roof. But it doesn’t mean music can’t help, and the new roof allowed Sharrett-Singer to jump at the chance to plan “Cantor and Friends” — something she had been dreaming about for a long time.

The Nov. 10 concert features three other cantors: brother-in-law Daniel Singer of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, Rebecca Garfein of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, and Susan Lewis Friedman of Temple Jeremiah in Chicago.

It also will include one of Riverdale Temple’s congregants, Lauren Sadkin, who played lead character Cosette in the national tour of the popular musical “Les Miserables.”

Sharrett-Singer herself struggled to find something to sing. She was thinking about something musical theatre, but wasn’t finding anything she connected with.

One day, however, she heard the song “Omar Sharif” from the Tony-winning musical “The Band’s Visit.”

“It has all these Arabic influences, so I’m going to sing that song,” she said. “I hope people will love it, because it’s not so popular. Well, it’s popular, but it’s new.”

Sharrett-Singer is excited to bring together the musicians, and even more excited to help the community she’s grown to love at Riverdale Temple.

“It’s wonderful to belong to a community, to come to a place where everybody knows who you are, and they’re with you through thick and thin,” she said. “In the world we live in, I think it’s so important to have a support system that won’t judge you.

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