Aliza Berger always wanted to be a rabbi. But as a teenager she fell in love with opera and decided her first career would be as an opera singer—and her second, a rabbi.
Berger enrolled at Vanderbilt with every intention of making opera her career; after all, as a high schooler she was the youngest member of the Denver Opera Company. But eventually she realized her true love was singing in community with others, and her dream of working in the Jewish community was stronger than her operatic aspirations.
Recently, Berger graduated from Massachusetts-based Hebrew College, where she was ordained a rabbi–cantor—the school’s first, and one of only a handful in the country.
“What Rabbi Berger accomplished in a little over five years here is phenomenal,” says Rabbi Daniel Klein, director of admissions at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, adding that completion of a rabbinical and cantorial program consecutively would ordinarily take about a decade. “It’s a rare thing to have the skillset and desire to do both—and at the same time. But Rabbi Berger had the intelligence and the vocal capacity.”
In most synagogues, rabbis are the community’s spiritual leader, valued for their knowledge, while cantors are professionally trained musicians who lead prayer services.
Rabbi Berger says Vanderbilt had a profound impact on who she has become. “Vanderbilt gave me not only the education I needed to become a better musician and student, but also the space to discover my path in the world,” she says. “And although I am no longer pursuing an opera career, I keep coming back to the lessons I learned at the Blair School of Music—the music theory, history and performance skills.”
At Vanderbilt she double-majored in music arts (voice) and Jewish studies, and was active in the Hillel and Chabad on campus and in the local Jewish community.
At 28, Berger is now Rav–Hazzan (rabbi–cantor) at Temple Emanuel in Newton, a community outside Boston. She infuses music into the pulpit whenever possible, singing at every opportunity. Recently, she gave a sermon centered around a story about 19th-century composer Giuseppe Verdi.
“I like to ‘play’ with the musical tradition—to be creative in my interpretations,” says Berger. “It’s helpful to be steeped in the tradition and be able to say, ‘What I’m doing is OK.’ My cantorial training gives me the credibility to do this.”
—SHARON MARIE KATZ
Watch Aliza Berger perform a selection from her senior Vanderbilt recital, “Under the Greenwood Tree,” with text from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.