Standing in front of about 10 children, Lisa Segal strums her guitar and tells them to “repeat after me.”
The kids do what they are told and soon she has them singing a song of praise for Hannukah.
As the incoming head cantor at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, Segal looks to the children’s choir as a way to share her love for song. She also is working with an adult choir and a teen band as she melds music into all aspects of temple life.
“Each generation incorporates new teachings,” she said. “I feel very blessed to carry out my vision in a new place, building upon the incredible traditions of the 70 years of Temple Beth Sholom.”
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Segal, 55, will officially be installed at 6 p.m. Friday as the Reform synagogue’s first female cantor and only the fourth cantor in the synagogue’s history. The change comes after the temple’s former head cantor, Steven Haas, moved on to become the temple’s cantor emeritus last month. Haas will still sing at the synagogue, but will have fewer responsibilities.
“Change is not commonplace at Temple Beth Sholom,” said the temple’s Rabbi Gary Glickstein, who has been at the synagogue at 4144 Chase Ave. for nearly 30 years. “It’s a very big change in our musical tradition, but also a welcome change.”
The theme of Segal’s installation service — which is expected to draw more than 500 people from across South Florida — is taken from Psalm 96, Sing Unto God A New Song, which is sung at every Sabbath service. The installation will include performances by The Second Avenue Jewish Chorale, Temple Beth Sholom singers and musicians. Also appearing: Cantor Segal's “Rock On Shabbat” band, a group of musicians that travels to congregations across South Florida to perform on Friday nights.
Debbie Hirschl, who is chairing the installation service, said the congregation is excited to formally welcome Segal as the head cantor. “This shows the power of music to build community.”
Segal joined the Miami Beach synagogue in 2011, overseeing the bar and bat mitzvah program. She came to Miami Beach from Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest after 24 years.
She started at Beth Am as a music teacher and continued in that role for 18 years. She then went to cantorial school and joined Cantor Rachelle Nelson, the first female cantor in South Florida.
Nelson said Segal needed to “find her own voice.”
“It was time for her to create her own sense of community,” she said.
Born in Detroit, Segal was 8 when her mother died. When she was 10, her dad took her to a pawn shop where she bought her first guitar for $50, after she saw her friend play a ukulele. She began teaching herself to play and loved it.
The family moved to St. Petersburg and Segal joined her temple’s youth group. At a retreat, she found her calling.
“It was life-altering for me. I started teaching myself all of the music.”
She became a regional song leader at youth group conventions.
Segal went on to graduate from the University of Florida with a sociology degree because she loved studying about communities and considered going into social work. After graduation she moved to South Florida for a job with the old Jordan Marsh department store chain as a corporate trainer.
She soon met her future husband, Jimmy, through a mutual friend and moved to South Miami-Dade, where he grew up. Segal gave up the corporate life to pursue her love of music.
So she got a job as a Jewish music teacher at a school in Miami Beach.
“I knew that is what I was meant to do,” she said.
With the backing of Nelson and Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi Terri Bookman, she applied to cantorial school. In 2001, she was accepted as a cantorial certification candidate through the American Conference of Cantors and Hebrew Union College/School of Sacred Music.
It wasn’t easy for her. She worked full time and had two young children, now 23 and 25. Her day often started with studying in the morning and ended late with a nightcap of studying. She sang on the side as a cantorial soloist.
She graduated the program in 2007 and quickly began officiating funerals and bar and bat mitzvahs.
In 2011, the opportunity to join Temple Beth Sholom opened up.
“Having gone back to school and reinventing myself, I was ready for a new challenge and a new chapter,” she said. “ I needed to grow.”
As a cantor, Segal teaches, performs, composes and records. While some women have purses and shoe collections, Segal collects guitars and prayer shawls — she has one for every outfit.
In her office are pictures from countless bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and other occasions she has led.
She said the greatest gift has been “to empower others and teach others.”
Jennifer Benrey, who is leading the adult choir at Friday’s installation, said Segal has added so much to the temple.
“She brings a different energy to the congregation,” said Benrey, who said Segal inspired her to apply to cantorial school. “She is all about empowering her congregants.”
Segal also works hard to to find a balance between work and home life.
“Any member of the clergy will tell you that serving your community is a great blessing and a calling,” she said. “It is highly demanding, yet truly rewarding.”