Meet another member of South Florida's many-sided faith community. This week we're talking with Jerry Berkowitz, cantor at Congregation Etz Chaim in Wilton Manors.
Q: How do you work out your official positions at one synagogue while serving as cantor at another?
A: Fortunately, I can do my duties at Etz Chaim without interfering with those at Temple Beth Torah. It's mainly Friday night services and the High Holy Days. In fact, with Beth Torah's outreach program, joint affiliation is not impossible.
Q: As a straight man, why did you want to be a cantor at a synagogue that ministers mainly to gays and lesbians?
A: Number one, I believe in the power of music to bring communities together. It's an opportunity to be more inclusive. And my background is more diverse. I grew up in a "conservadox" household. And I can bring that to the gay Jewish community. They're Jewish, like anyone else.
Q: Must be taxing on your time, though.
A: It was in the first few months. Now it's down to a few changes on a weekly basis. I actually wrote one of the songs for the Friday service. It was so successful, I want to bring it to Beth Torah.
Q: Have you had any training for being cantor?
A: I learned a lot from Cantor Avram Davis of New York, who died recently. In high school, I learned all seven major strains of cantillation, the notes attached to the individual words of the Torah.
Q: Do you have an overall philosophy of ministry?
A: Listening very carefully and hearing what the person is saying, versus what they're telling me they're doing. Usually, body language gives as much a message as what they're saying. It has a subtext that is obvious to anyone who pays attention.
Q: What's the favorite part of your work?
A: Actually singing with the congregation, and getting them to sing along. I had my first High Holy Days as a paid cantor this past year. I'd never experienced the kind of focus I had when I saw people moved by what I did.
Q: What's the hardest part?
A: Trying to keep up with the new songs. Everyone writes their own stuff. That's the fun about our community. It's a confluence of Jews from various backgrounds coming together.
Q: How do you like to relax?
A: Hanging out with friends and playing guitar. I'm also a good writer and artist. I do sketch work. and I'm writing a book.
Q: What's the book about?
A: Re-establishing your relationship with food. I recently lost about 77 pounds in 5 and half months. It was so easy, I said I got to let other people know how.
Q: Favorite pastime?
A: Boating. My brother and friends have boats. We all go out on weekends.
Q: What's your favorite vacation spot?
A: My house in Connecticut. It's 150 feet from Long Island Sound. When Hurricane Irene pulled through, the news stations reported nearby. [But] the house is fine.
Q: Do you have any favorite TV shows?
A: I'm an "NCIS" fan, for the assembly of characters and the community they have. I also like "Suits" and "Covert Affairs."
Q: How about favorite film(s)?
A: "The Blind Side" was a very good movie. And I grew up in the "Godfather" generation. But there have been so many good movies in recent years. My first experience with Avatar was in an Imax theater. To see that in 3D was a game changer for me.
Q: Favorite music? Favorite performer(s)?
A: The Beatles, on eight or nine fronts. So many things they created are still viable now. And any of the guitarsmiths from the 1970s: Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jerry Garcia, Brian May, Cat Stevens.
Q: Do you have a treasured possession?
A: My guitars. I have five. I've had some of them 30 years. They're therapeutic and entertaining, and they have their own unique tone and voice.
Q: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
A: Probably why my dad had to die so early [at 51]. But also, why six million people had to die in the camps in World War II. I had relatives who survived and some who were killed.
Q: Something most people don't know about you?
A: When I was in college, I was in 25 shows. I did as much on stage as in classroom, much to my parents' chagrin.
Q: When you feel down, how do you revive spiritually?
A: Real simple: I pick up a guitar. If I've had a bad day or a great day, and I need to refocus from something that's caused a lot of stress, I'll go there. it usually doesn't take more than 30 seconds. But then I'll often stay two or three hours.
Q: Have you ever doubted your faith?
A: Yeah, when my father died. There was a lot of anger and upset that he was dead at 51.
Q: How was that doubt resolved?
A: The whole seven-day structure of Shiva [initial grieving period] was comforting. It gave me reassurance that things would continue.
Q: Motto, or favorite scripture verse?
A: From Hillel: "If I am not for me, then who will be? If I am not for myself, then what am I?"
More about Berkowitz
Title: Cantor at Congregation Etz Chaim, Wilton Manors.
Other job experience: Branding and marketing executive.
Other community posts: Board member, Temple Beth Torah, Tamarac.
Education: Degree in sociology with a minor in advertising, University of Pennsylvania.
Personal: 55. Born in New Haven, Conn.
Family: Married to Frances, a professional fundraiser and board member at Soref Jewish Community Center, Plantation. Two children.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times