Spend a few minutes with Rav-Hazzan Aliza Berger and it’s apparent the 28-year-old loves her work as a rabbi and a cantor. Berger, whose portfolio at Temple Emanuel, a Conservative congregation in Newton, includes supporting teens and young adults, also delivers sermons, officiates at lifecycle events and sings during prayers. A graduate of Hebrew College’s Rav-Hazzan ordination program, she notes that the difference between a rabbi who is a cantor and a rav-hazzan has mostly to do with linguistics. “When Hebrew College created the joint Rav-Hazzan program,” Berger told JewishBoston, “they chose the word hazzan [instead of cantor] because it is both uniquely Jewish and reflects someone who has taken on a clergy role. They designated rabbi as rav so that the two titles matched.”

Berger grew up in Denver in the Jewish Renewal movement. Although it was an hour’s drive from her home, she attended Sunday school at what was then called the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder. Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, a leader in the movement, and Jewish Renewal founder, the late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, were her early mentors. Berger also credits her parents with creating a vibrant Jewish home where there was Shabbat dinner every week and a night of music. “Friday night my dad got out his guitar, and my mother, younger sister and I sang and danced around the living room for hours,” she said.

Music and Judaism have always been an integral part of Berger’s life. She knew she wanted to be a rabbi from an early age, and in high school she sang with the Denver Opera Company. “I became so enamored of the opera world, I wanted to be an opera singer and then go to rabbinical school,” she said. Berger became serious enough about music that post-high school she wanted to go to a conservatory. But her parents insisted that she also get an academic education. She chose Vanderbilt University in Nashville for its stellar Jewish studies and vocal music departments.


At Vanderbilt, her Judaism ran the gamut from leading Reform services at Hillel her freshman year to taking an active role later on in Chabad services. “I switched because I wanted a more traditional experience, but what I really wanted was a Jewish Renewal congregation,” she said. At Chabad, Berger identified with the Hasidism around her. “Chabad was the closest thing to what I grew up with. There was a lot of singing and dancing. Even the melodies were similar,” she recalled.

By the time Berger graduated, she was deciding between remaining in Nashville to teach or spending a year in Israel. Her decision was made when she was awarded a scholarship to Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. At Pardes, she ran the egalitarian minyan and embraced her studies at the beit midrash. In Israel, many of her fellow students were from Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs. “I loved the way they sang, the way they did social justice work,” she said. “They were doing everything I wanted to do.” By the time her year in Israel ended, Berger had been accepted to Hebrew College’s rabbinical program. The Rav-Hazzan program was founded in her third year at the college.

For Berger, Hebrew College’s post-denominational bent encompassed all the various parts that she cherished about being Jewish. “Jewish Renewal is an orientation and a way of being Jewish that is in line with post-denominational Judaism and Conservative Judaism,” she observed. “You have to find a way to connect with each ritual. We think of denominations as places where people gather based on an affinity for a way of doing or being Jewish. But in reality, they are collections of pluralistic Jews who come to a community for many reasons.”

Nowhere is this more obvious to Berger than in her work with teens and young adults. She is particularly focused on helping the teens she meets stay “plugged in and make Jewish choices after their b’nei mitzvah. There’s a delicate dance that goes into helping teens and young adults find a personal connection to Judaism. There are a lot of Jewish options for them to have in their lives. I want to show them that Judaism is a great app for life, and I want young people to download the version that works for them.”

During the High Holidays, Berger will divide her time between leading teen and family services, as well as participating in adult services in Temple Emanuel’s Community Hall. As for explaining the relationship between her rabbinical and cantorial duties, she compares the cantorial part of her work as akin to establishing a Wi-Fi zone. “The nusach, or melodic prayers, of a service are like a password that gives us access to search the divine realm for what we need,” she said. “The rabbi sets up scenes through words, text that is spoken or studied and liturgy. The cantor fills those scenes. The place where those two worlds meet is the most connective for me.”

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