An underwater Jewish wedding, with both bride and groom in scuba gear?
Cantor Debbi Ballard hasn’t performed merely one such ceremony. “I’ve done three!“ she says happily.
“I’m game for anything unique,” she explains. “And I’m always up for adventure.“
Cantor Ballard probably isn’t what you imagine when you think “religious leader.”
That‘s fine with her. “I am, in all ways, untraditionally Jewish,” she says.
Which is exactly what you’re going to need if, for instance, you want a Jewish wedding but your fiancé isn’t a Jew. Or if he is a Jew but you’re both gay. Or if you’re an interfaith couple but you want your child to have a bat mitzvah.
Or perhaps you just want to attend High Holy Day services, but don’t currently belong to a congregation.
If so, Cantor Debbi Ballard, a.k.a. “My Personal Cantor,“ is there for you.
Ballard, a freelance cantor, is redefining the meaning of Jewish worship by creating services and “life-cycle events” that are grounded in traditional Judaism but radically inclusive. Interfaith couples, unaffiliated Jews, and LGBT Jews are all welcome. “Every person,” says Ballard, “regardless of affiliation or orientation, deserves an open-arms approach to Jewish worship.”
This isn’t your grandpa’s Judaism. The message you’ll find on Ballard’s website? “We are not Reform, Conservative or Renewal. We are just Jewish.”
And if a Jew wants to get married under water? Well, why not?
Where a more traditional cantor (who leads the congregation in prayer and sings liturgical music) might turn down the opportunity to perform such a ceremony (or to officiate at an interfaith or LGBT wedding) Ballard’s approach is to focus on the possible.
“I‘d rather say ‘yes’ than ‘no’,” she explains. “’No’ ends the conversation. ‘Yes’ begins a dialogue. With ‘yes,’ you leave the door open.”
By saying yes, Ballard is addressing a question central to Judaism in the 21st century where, increasingly, Jews are marrying non-Jews, and the old idea of what it means to be Jewish is being challenged.
It used to be that you belonged to a congregation, paid your (often hefty) synagogue dues, and married within your faith. If you wanted to marry at your synagogue but outside of your faith, you were (usually) out of luck.
An LGBT wedding? Totally out of the question.
“That old model is broken,” notes Ballard. Most American Jews no longer belong to a congregation. (In South Florida, where Ballard is based, 80 percent of Jews are unaffiliated.) “To bring them back into the fold,” she says, “we need to find a way of being Jewish that works for them.”
Ballard’s vision of Jewish community has nothing to do with synagogue membership. There are no membership dues. (Non-Jews are often shocked to learn that belonging to a synagogue can cost thousands of dollars a year.) Instead, Ballard’s upbeat, affordable services are pay-as-you-go. And although Ballard owns a Torah, she doesn’t have a building.
“Who needs a building?’ she says. “I feel more spiritual connection on a beach than in a sanctuary.”
Indeed, Ballard has held Jewish worship services on the beach, as well as in private homes, restaurants, hotels, on a cruise ship, and in the conference room at the local Dunkin’ Donuts. The services themselves are easy to follow, with plenty of singing, storytelling, and even dancing, but also they include the prayers, blessings, and melodies that more observant celebrants are accustomed to. Ballard‘s mission is to make everyone—from Jewish “newbies” to long-time worshippers—feel welcome.
Ballard, 52, was raised an observant Conservative Jew, but became estranged from her parents when she married outside the faith. When she first introduced them to her future husband, her folks were shocked and furious.
“My faith was so important to me,“ says Ballard, “they were sure I’d marry a rabbi!” Instead, she fell for a blond-haired, green-eyed “goy.”
They found it impossible to be happy for her.
The pain of this estrangement, as well as the years that followed, in which Ballard, as part of an interfaith couple, felt like a second-class citizen in her own shul, radicalized her. She came to realize that there were many people who, as she did, wanted to practice their faith, but just didn’t feel welcome within a traditional congregation.
A problem-solver by nature, Ballard, in her 40s, decided to leave the corporate world, where she’d thrived for decades, and train (at All Faiths Seminary in New York) as a cantor, so she could provide interfaith couples, and others, a way to stay connected to Judaism. A perfect calling, being a cantor combines her love of music, her ability to easily connect with people, and her faith.
Now, as “My Personal Cantor,” Ballard serves not only her South Florida community, but flies all over the world to provide unaffiliated families with weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, memorial services, and other Jewish “lifecycle events” that are personal, authentic, and inclusive. (She is now divorced.)
Ironically, by welcoming anyone who doesn’t feel at home in a traditional synagogue, and by creating services that speak to both newcomers and to the long-observant, “I’m forging the type of faith community that people all over the country are trying to achieve,” Ballard says proudly.
And the best thing? Her once-estranged parents now share Ballard’s vision.
Ballard’s father, in fact, was so inspired by what his daughter had accomplished that, upon retirement, he trained to become a rabbi so that he could work with her. Over the next week, father and daughter will, together, be leading High Holy Day services at the Miramar Cultural Center, an 800-seat auditorium.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Ballard says happily.
What does it mean to be a Jew? Is an age-old question. Cantor Debbi Ballard is giving the answer a vibrant and inclusive 21st-century spin.