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Harvard to HUC to Emanuel

Cantor Elizabeth SacksCantor Elizabeth Sacks, looking more like a mother dropping off her child off at religious school than the next senior cantor at Temple Emanuel, nestles into a corner seat in the Feiner Chapel.

Today she’s reminiscing. Her place on the bimah is empty. Yet intimations of music cling to her unsung words.

Sacks, 34, who was hired as Emanuel’s part-time cantor in 2012, will occupy the top spot when the Reform congregation’s longtime Cantor Regina Heit retires in January, 2016.

“I sang from the time I was tiny — I was always, always singing,” she laughs before sharing an embarrassing story from the distant past.

“Once while I was little, my father took me to the men’s room. For 12 minutes, I sang any song I could think of!” Even then, she had amassed a healthy repertoire.

When Sacks was seven, the cantor at her Conservative synagogue in New York overheard her vocalizing in the hallway. He stopped, asked her to indulge in a few scales with him and drafted her into the choir.

Cantor Jacob Mendelson, one of the great teachers of chazzanut, intuited that this little girl’s voice held extraordinary promise.

“He was a gentle mentor,” Sacks reflects. “He opened the world of Jewish music to me without any kind of pressure.”

The pupil-tutor relationship continued through her formative years and beyond. “While I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah, he taught me how to lead an entire traditional service. I loved it.

“One week before my Bat Mitzvah, he said very nicely, ‘You have a knack for this. You might want to think about becoming a cantor.’” Sacks admits she didn’t know what to make of it then.

The rest of this article is available in the August 14 Education & Culture IJN print and digital edition only. Contact Carol to order your copy at or subscribe to our online e-Edition.

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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