Cantor Berman to ‘complete’ her ‘tenure’

FOX POINT – Contemplating her life’s work, Cantor Karen Berman said it has been so very “relational.” As in relationships. 

“I get to give them a hug in the hall,” she said. “I have loved them and in return they have loved me.”

Berman is to “complete” her “tenure” — she’s not a fan of the R-word — at the Milwaukee area’s largest Reform congregation, Congregation Shalom in Fox Point. She’s served here for more than 30 years. Berman announced her plans this summer and her last day will be June 30, 2020. A search committee is working toward selecting a new cantor.

Berman came to Milwaukee from Green Bay in 1970, as a University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee freshman. She’s been with the Cream City ever since, serving at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun for several years in various roles, then becoming a cantorial soloist for Congregation Shalom in 1987.

“They hired me for the year and I’m here ever since,” she said.

In a hushed tone, with respect for all the lives she’s connected with, she admits to taking pride in “sharing in making this community.”

The synagogue “wasn’t just a place that was ‘Other” … it was just home,” she said. Her children came up through the shul and one of them, Hannah, was about a year old when she started here in 1987. Now, Berman will retire when granddaughter Marilyn is about a year old. Marilyn is Hannah’s daughter and to Berman, there’s something beautiful in that family journey.

Berman worked for many years performing the duties of a cantor at Congregation Shalom before obtaining her certification. After studying with a Chicago cantor and passing her exams, she got the call in 1998.

She was at home (where she still lives) in Fox Point and her parents, now of blessed memory, were over. She remembers with great fondness learning she’d been welcomed as a full member of the American Conference of Cantors, having met all her certification requirements, right in front of them.

Another amazing moment, one of so many: In February, Israeli women visited as part of a catchball tournament. They attended a Shabbat service at Congregation Shalom; such Reform services, with equal roles for women, are uncommon in Israel, which tends to be largely divided into Orthodox and secular approaches. 

One of the visiting women said she’d never stood before an open ark. So the visitors were invited to do so.

“I went to the ark and got out the Torah,” Berman recalled. They had never stood before an open Torah.

“Tears were falling from some of the eyes. It was just this incredible spiritual moment. They were allowed to have that very special spiritual moment and I got to stand with them when they did,” Berman said.  “I can’t fully express the feeling in the room. Just feeling the divine in that moment was quite extraordinary.”

Berman has met with hundreds – maybe thousands – of b’nei mitzvah kids. She keeps some photos on her wall and treasures some notes from her young Jewish students. She’s loved visits from prior students and has had this experience, too: Do the b’nei mitzvah, then a wedding for that person, then a baby naming for that person’s child, then a b’nei mitzvah for that child. It all comes full circle.

“It’s a privilege,” she said. “There are not a lot of people who get to do that.”

She’s been asked, will she do b’nei mitzvah for the grandchildren of her former students? Why step down now?

“Because it’s time,” is her answer. “I will be just shy of my 68th birthday when I transition.”

The transition will be to more time for family and not being pulled away by other responsibilities. She does not plan to move out of town.

Ultimately, she is grateful. “The names I would have to list of all the people who impacted me would fill the whole space,” she said, referring to this story. 

Berman is clearly, visibly moved by her coming exit and she’s a confirmed hugger, surely with more hugs to come on the way out. 

She signed her June 20, 2019 good-bye letter to congregants, “with heart and a hug, Cantor Karen Berman.”