By Stacey Dresner
When asked about her Jewish upbringing, cantorial student Diana Brewer exclaimed, “It was Catholic!”
Brewer grew up in a Catholic home in New Jersey, but converted to Judaism several years ago.
Now a student of the cantorial program of the ALEPH seminary, Brewer now leads Shabbat services at The McAuley, a continuing care retirement community that is a part of the Mercy Communities, originally founded by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in West Hartford, Conn.
Brewer, who lives in Northampton, came to lead services at The McAuley through the sister of Jack Kessler, the director of ALEPH’s cantorial program. Kessler’s sister connected Brewer to The McAuley’s director of Pastoral Care Katherine Nowak, who was interested in expanding programming for The McAuley’s Jewish residents.
Earlier this fall, Brewer led the very first Sukkot program at The McAuley, attended by over a dozen residents. Nowak had arrived at The McAuley at 7 a.m. the morning of the program and along with colleague Evelyn Eddy, built the sukkah with materials she had gathered.
“It was very joyous,” Brewer said. “I felt people’s excitement in being there. People were very happy. I am a cantor so I like to sing as much as possible, and what I noticed was that over the course of our time together in the sukkah, people were singing more and more freely and more and more readily. We also had discussions that people very openly participated in…And then after the official part of the experience we also got to spend some time being together and I think that was invaluable for myself and for the residents who were there.”
Brewer will now lead Shabbat services monthly at the retirement home, travelling from her home in Northampton, where she lives with her wife and their 11-year-old daughter.
A graduate of Smith College, where she received a degree in music, Brewer, 43, performed for years as a professional classical singer specializing in Baroque and Renaissance music. Over the years she has performed with the Arcadia Players, the singing ensemble Tapestry, and still sings with Cantabile, the Pioneer Valley choir that specializes in Renaissance songs. She has also recorded with rock performer Dominic Kelly.
After several years in Boston, Brewer returned to Northampton 10 years ago.
“I had a family by then and thought it was a nice place to settle,” she said.
Her decision to convert to Judaism seven years ago seemed quite natural.
“One of my teachers often described me as a Jew born to non-Jewish parents,” she said. “Most of my life all these people, when the religion conversation came up, they would say to me, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ It was always an assumption and very interesting.
I don’t know where it came from.”
She did end up marrying into a Jewish family.
“We decided to raise our daughter Jewishly because I, at that time, wasn’t a Catholic — I wasn’t religious at all, though I did have an active spiritual life of prayer and meditation. But I was not religious and I certainly did not identify as Christian, that never really worked for me,” she explained. “When we started our daughter in her Jewish education, I became like the Hebrew school mom and I started learning myself. I had been celebrating holidays with family and asking questions here and there and finding out more and more as I went along. And something really clicked when I started just being more present at our synagogue and learning about what the kids were learning.”
Brewer worked with Rabbi Benjamin Weiner at the Jewish Community of Amherst for two or three years before converting and “making the whole thing official.”
The decision to become a cantor came with perhaps a little divine intervention.
“It was actually shortly before I went to the mikvah that I had something that I always describe as ‘The Call,’” she says. “I was at the wedding of a friend of mine — a big Jewish wedding — and there was a cantor who was officiating. During the final bracha of the sheva brachot something just moved me and I felt that it was like a very particular moment that I received this ‘call’ and I responded back, ‘No! I don’t have time for that!’ I had a young daughter and a lot going on but it was rather persistent.”
She fell in love with the idea of being a cantor.
“I started learning to read Torah and was working on an aliyah that I could chant sometime after my mikvah,” she recalled.
“I loved the intersection of Jewish spirituality, music and language, which for me is the trifecta. I had a deep love of languages and studying Hebrew for me has always been a joy and putting that together with the music and the Jewish spirituality was fascinating and moving.”
She looked into a number of cantorial programs and started Hebrew College’s cantorial soloist certificate program, but later switched to the ALEPH cantorial program.
“I really wanted the type of study that was involved in the ordination path, but it wasn’t really practical for me to go that route…I wasn’t ready to uproot my family and move to Boston and become a full-time student.”
A friend told her about the ALEPH program, a modified online school that combines online classes with in-person study intensives.
“I thought, ‘This is possible.’ It is a really good fit, certainly spiritually, but also logistically because it is what we call a modified distance learning program,” she said.
She is currently in the first semester of her fourth year of the program and hopes to finish in another year. For the past six years she has served as the High Holy Days Hazzan at her synagogue, JCA, and once a month co-leads JCA’s musical service called, Shabbat Ne’imah.
She led her first Shabbat service at The McAuley on Dec. 2 at 10 a.m.
“We are calling it ‘Shabbat Breakfast with Torah and Song.’”