At the time, I looked around at the community...and realized that a lot of [those who sought her out] were interfaith families trying to raise and educate Jewish children but not finding a home in synagogue, said Ballard, who knew exactly how they felt.
Religion en masse is not suiting everybody. Theyre paying a lot of money and not feeling like they get value back. I, as a single mother, struggled financially, and it wasnt a priority to me to pay $5,000 dues a year to a synagogue.
What was her priority: growing closer to God, which she found working one-on-one with families who had their own spiritual needs.
Then, she said, a family called and said, We want to join you. I said, Join me? There is no joining. Then one family after another followed.
Among them: Ellen and David Kessler of Weston, who plan to worship with Shema Koleinu during Yom Kippur.
They hired Ballard two years ago to prepare daughter Aleeza for her bat mitzvah, to be held at a hotel. Like most of South Floridas non-Orthodox Jews, they arent affiliated with a synagogue.
We had belonged, we hadnt belonged. I was really in a quandary, said Ellen.
They not only wanted a meaningful experience for their daughter but needed to make sure that Ellens Orthodox-oriented father wouldnt be turned off.
Everyone was happy with Ballards approach, done with so much heart, said Ellen Kessler. You feel it immediately...Her level of knowing her stuff is great. My dad was thrilled, and did a blessing with her.
When her father, calligrapher Harvey Kaplan, died in August, the Kesslers again called Ballard, not for the funeral but for a private ceremony of remembrance.
Ballard chose the Saturday evening havdalah service, which marks the end of Sabbath, and included a lullaby that Kaplan sang to his daughter when she was small.
It was completely custom, said Kessler. When youre selling personal, you deliver personal.
Ballard learned customer service in a cauldron of discontent; she used to work an airline ticket counter.
It was a simple question that Wayne Ballard asked that set his wife on her current path. They were together in temple. Debbi was singing her favorite prayer, the Aleinu [We Must Praise], because it brought back childhood memories of being in synagogue with my parents and harmonizing, and I loved that moment.
Wayne said, Great. What does it mean? I said, I have no idea, and I got very belligerent. But as Jews, we dont know what our prayers mean. We can rattle them off with our eyes closed, but were only saying syllables and our hearts and minds arent connecting to the words.
That led her to wonder if I want to pray the words in this book, or do what everybody around me is doing. There was no one who could help me...make being Jewish a personal experience.
In 2004, Debbi Ballard, by then divorced from Wayne Ballard, became a cantor. Four years later she launched My Personal Cantor.
Her partner in this endeavor: Her once-disapproving father.
The 71-year-old, trumpet-playing former pharmacist, community-theater producer and manager of nonprofit Jewish organizations, began studying for the rabbinate after he retired at 65, expressly to join his daughters mission.
Ordained two years ago, hes now Rabbi Steve, of Pompano Beach.
Synagogue-based rabbis are not there to offer their hand and say, Let me provide this warm, safe, nurturing, loving environment for you to learn in, Ballard said. Im in their home teaching. Im doing their services. Its very holistic. My phone rings 24/7. I am like a life coach.