When Debbi Spiegel told her parents she planned to marry a man who wasnt Jewish, the reaction was as swift as it was predictable.
Observant Conservative Jews, they were heartbroken and furious. And for the next seven years, as Stephen and Annette Spiegel became arms-length grandparents, they barely spoke to their daughter, by then Debbi Spiegel Ballard.
But that wasnt the only estrangement that troubled Ballard during the late 1980s and 90s. As half of a mixed couple, she felt ill at ease in synagogue, where shed once found such joy.
Now, as a freelance cantor in Broward County, she has created her own congregation, welcoming anyone who isnt comfortable in a traditional setting because theyre married to a non-Jew, dont want to pay hefty synagogue dues, or are lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender.
And she is joined by her once-estranged father, who began studying for the rabbinate at age 65 expressly to join his daughters mission.
The father-daughter pair will lead Yom Kippur services Tuesday and Wednesday at the Miramar Culture Center. The most solemn event on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, introspection and atonement that begins at sundown Tuesday and ends at sundown Wednesday.
Theyre able to teach it because their family lived it, father and daughter said.
My services are not Lets sit together and beat our chests and tell each other what weve done wrong, said Ballard. Its a kinder, gentler tshuva: Repentance.
Rabbi Steve added that the rabbi who trained him and influenced his daughter, taught that Judaisms view of sin and doing wrong was not the same as the rest of the world. He likened it to, We shot at the target and missed the bulls-eye at little bit. We shoot again and we practice and try to get closer.
Last year, father and daughter booked the hall in Miramar and held services for about 350 people. Filled with music and spontaneous outbursts of dancing, they proved so successful that they reprised this year, adding two professional musicians and Rabbi Janie Grackin, a West Palm Beach Torah storyteller.
Their Rosh Hashana service last week drew some 500 worshippers, Ballard said, mostly families whose kids shed prepped to become bar and bat mitzvah, and about 20 whod already gone through the ceremony. Many of those she helps are through her website, mypersonalcantor.com. Its called Shema Koleinu Hear Our Voices a digital-age faith community that evolved from Ballards own spiritual journey.
We are not Reform, Conservative nor Renewal. Were just Jewish, Ballard, now 50 and divorced, explains on the website. Our services are warm and inclusive to all.
Ballard, a vivacious acoustic guitarist/pianist with what she calls a coffeehouse blues voice, never expected to be leading her own congregation. A longtime lay leader at Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, she fulfilled a passion for both music and Judaism four years ago by recreating herself as a bar/bat mitzvah coach and officiant at weddings, baby namings and other life cycle events.
She had parted ways with the temple, largely over philosophical differences.