Spotlight: Cantor Sara Hass
Tell us about your Jewish background growing up in LA and being very involved in Jewish camping.
Growing up in LA was really wonderful. Our involvement in the Jewish community took shape when we moved to West LA and joined Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (where my sister currently serves as cantor). Being Jewish in LA is pretty common to say the least, so most of my friends were Jewish and members of Emanuel. As a family, we were involved in the religious school and the intergenerational productions. Growing up as a triplet, with siblings who were involved in many of the same things, it was difficult to establish myself as an individual. So I immersed myself in Emanuel. I joined the youth group as well as NFTY, and I was even sent to URJ Kutz Camp by my clergy in order to improve my songleading skills. Those skills would eventually lead me to serve as a songleader and tefillah coordinator at several URJ Camps. My cantor and mentor, Yonah Kliger, saw something in me and took me under his wing. I became a junior cantor, singing on Shabbat and at the HHD’s. At that point the thought had never crossed my mind to become a cantor.
Then, there was camp. My family was tightly connected to Camp Saratoga/Swig/Newman since its inception. My dad and my uncle, Rabbi Ken Weiss z”l, were campers, CIT’s, counselors, and specialists, and my uncle was on faculty for several decades once he became a rabbi. So, naturally, my parents sent my older siblings and eventually my triplet brother, sister, and I each summer, beginning at Swig and then on to Newman. This was our place. I remember my first summer was the 45th anniversary celebration and as I walked into camp, I heard the voices of Julie Silver and Debbie Friedman, and I was hooked. I knew that I wanted to be like them. I spent over a decade as a camper and eventually a staff member and I now serve as faculty.
I understand you have an older brother who is a rabbi and a triplet who is a cantor! How does coming from a family of Jewish spiritual leaders even come about?
I am not sure it was any specific or intentional on my parents’ part, but they made sure that we were all exposed to Jewish camping at an early age. As crazy as this sounds, I am not sure my sister and I would have become cantors had we not experienced the Northridge earthquake in 1994. It shook us both literally and figuratively. Due to damage that our house sustained, we moved from the San Fernando Valley of California, to the city, and joined Temple Emanuel. Our exposure and experiences there, combined with a love of Jewish music and camping, were what led us to this path. It’s really amazing to have both my sister and our older brother as colleagues. We love to bounce ideas off of each other, and my sister is the first person that I call for advice and support.
What led you to become a cantor?
I think this answer is a combination of everything I addressed above. My upbringing, my time at camp, and the influence of my older brother’s rabbinic career helped to set me on the path toward the cantorate. There is one other person who made a tremendous impact on my decision to choosing this career, and that was my Uncle - Rabbi Kenneth J. Weiss z’’l. He has always been an inspiration to me and I continue to be in awe of his work. After he passed, I was gifted many of his books and research materials. I always love finding his notes on post-its or scribbled in the margins. He has remained my teacher even in the last few years since his death.
You recently became ordained from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and this is your first pulpit at Temple Israel of Long Beach. How does it feel to be a relatively new and young cantor? What inspires you in your role?
Terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. HUC-JIR prepared me to bring a variety of skills to my new community, and yet I know that I have so much more to learn. This is only the beginning of what I hope will be a long and fruitful career. I am so proud to be a graduate of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR and can’t believe that it’s already been almost three years since ordination. I am equally as proud to be the first full-time ordained cantor at Temple Israel of Long Beach. We are a growing and diverse community of almost 600 families that has always been one that thrives on music and communal singing, and I love bringing that to my congregants. My colleagues and friends continue to be a source of inspiration to me. I love being part of a network of cantors, rabbis, and educators that are truly there to help one another. I know that I can always reach out to them for advice, support, and guidance. I am also constantly in awe and inspired by the work my sister Cantor Lizzie Weiss is doing and I am grateful that we live so close to each other. Like she said in her Spotlight interview, we truly are each other’s biggest fans.
What are some of your goals moving forward?
I am looking forward to continuing to learn about what it means to be a cantor and spiritual leader within my community. I am grateful that I can learn this from wonderful colleagues and from those that I work with on a daily basis. Since I began my time at Temple Israel, I, along with my incredible congregant Bill Shafton, have created a new prayer experience called Shabbat HaNefesh, a music infused and meditative service. His musical talents along with our exceptionally talented drummer Christo Pellani, help lift my spirits and all of those who attend. We are also working on new music that we will hopefully record soon. I also just started working with our youth choir and am working to create our high school musical group called Shir Harmony.
What are some hobbies or activities you like to do outside of being a cantor?
I love spending time with my family: my husband, Andrew, and our 8-month-old daughter, Lucy. When I can, I also love to work out with my trainer and spin. We also love to travel!
Cantor Sara Hass is the Cantor at Temple Israel in Long Beach, CA