When Debbi Spiegel told her parents she planned to marry a man who wasn’t 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 wasn’t 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 she’d once found such joy.
Now, as a freelance cantor in Broward County, she has created her own congregation, welcoming anyone who isn’t comfortable in a traditional setting because they’re married to a non-Jew, don’t 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 daughter’s 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.
They’re able to teach it because their family lived it, father and daughter said.
“My services are not ‘Let’s sit together and beat our chests and tell each other what we’ve done wrong,’’’ said Ballard. “It’s a kinder, gentler tshuva:’’ Repentance.
“Rabbi Steve” added that the rabbi who trained him and influenced his daughter, taught that “Judaism’s 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 she’d prepped to become bar and bat mitzvah, and about 20 who’d already gone through the ceremony. Many of those she helps are through her website, mypersonalcantor.com. It’s called Shema Koleinu — Hear Our Voices — a digital-age faith community that evolved from Ballard’s own spiritual journey.
“We are not Reform, Conservative nor Renewal. We’re ‘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.
“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. They’re paying a lot of money and not feeling like they get value back. I, as a single mother, struggled financially, and it wasn’t 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 Florida’s non-Orthodox Jews, they aren’t affiliated with a synagogue.
“We had belonged, we hadn’t 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 Ellen’s Orthodox-oriented father wouldn’t be turned off.
Everyone was happy with Ballard’s 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 you’re 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 don’t know what our prayers mean. We can rattle them off with our eyes closed, but we’re only saying syllables and our hearts and minds aren’t 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 daughter’s mission.
Ordained two years ago, he’s 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. “I’m in their home teaching. I’m doing their services. It’s very holistic. My phone rings 24/7. I am like a life coach.’’