Temple B’nai Chaim Welcomes New Congregational Leader

Cantor Harriet Dunkerley

Temple B’nai Chaim (TBC) has appointed its new spiritual leader and educator, Cantor Harriet Dunkerley, who began on Wednesday, July 1. The temple’s departing Rabbi, Rachel Bearman, has relocated to the midwest after six years with TBC.

Readers may note the lack of the word “Rabbi” in the headline and in the Cantor’s title; Dunkerley explained the main differences, if any, between a Cantor/Educator and a Rabbi.

“This is a question I hear a lot! Cantors and Rabbis in Reform Judaism are both ordained after a minimum of five years of study. Cantors can do everything that Rabbis do–[officiate] weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvah preparation and services, baby namings, counseling, pastoral care, teaching, leading worship services, offering sermons, [and other tasks].”

There is one primary differentiation point, Dunkerley noted. “Cantors approach worship, teaching, and life cycle events through a musical lens, while Rabbis’ training tends to focus more on sacred texts. That is not to say there isn’t some overlap, there certainly is, but in general, the training curriculum and resulting professional focus tends to diverge along these lines. We are both trained in pastoral care and counseling, educating our youth, service leading and of course, Hebrew. And both Rabbis and Cantors are capable of training to become certified Jewish Educators resulting in a master’s degree in Jewish Education. In short, a Cantor is just as prepared and qualified to lead a community as is a Rabbi. Today, most synagogues consider a Rabbi to be the senior clergy partner, but there are exceptions. I am delighted that Temple B’nai Chaim is now among that group of exceptions!”

So what about TBC attracted Dunkerley to a position that would require her to re-locate, and at such an unusual time in history?

“I saw the [online] posting for the full-time Cantor Educator position at TBC; as soon as I read the detailed application and job description, I knew I would be applying! I immediately went to TBC’s website and Facebook page to learn as much as I could about them. The warmth of the community practically leaped off the pages of the application as I read it. The primary goals of the synagogue that were listed matched almost exactly with what I was looking for, including an emphasis on engaging the congregation and fostering spiritual connection through music,” she said.

She recognized that Temple B’nai Chaim views music as an integral part of the spiritual experience–something she said very much aligns with her own personal beliefs and practices.

“It speaks volumes about the heart and soul of our community that TBC has chosen to employ a Cantor as both Educator and Senior Clergy. This is not a common model (yet) in the Reform Jewish world, and I am so excited to co-create with our Leadership Team. The possibilities for our community are truly limitless, and I look forward to singing, praying, and learning together and to the many ways we will expand, connect, and impact our greater community,” Dunkerley added.

Prior to accepting the position, Dunkerley was able to take a socially distanced tour of the TBC building. A highlight of the visit, she said, “was spending time in our beautiful sanctuary where I was able to take a Torah from the Ark and do a little happy dance with it on the bimah [pulpit]. It felt like a foreshadowing of many joyful moments to come with my new TBC family in this sacred space.”

The biggest question still remained, which was how do you build community, especially just entering that community, when the community can’t really be together?

“I think it starts with authentic intention and with asking questions like, “What does our community need right now?” and “What do we want people to take away from our time together?” I have found that if one keeps these questions at the root of all communal interactions, it is possible to present a level of authenticity that allows people to feel connected even if they cannot be physically together. Many congregations, Jewish, Christian, or other faiths, including TBC, have experienced a larger number of attendees at virtual worship services than would normally be present at an in-person service. In this current environment, people are craving community. We have a responsibility to fill that need and have been doing so for months now. Even though our building may be closed, our synagogue remains open to all,” she said.

Dunkerley plans to make herself available for a variety of virtual meet and greet Zoom gatherings including things like, “Coffee with the Cantor,” and “Singalong with Cantor Harriet” for families with younger children. She also plans other opportunities for the community to get to know her.

“With the warmer weather, we may be able to organize some smaller, socially-distanced meet-and-greets to include things like Havdallah in our TBC courtyard or parking lot or a Shabbat bring your own picnic to get to know the Cantor. This of course will depend on whether we can ensure the health and safety of all involved. That said, the intention remains the same–to make myself and my family authentically available to the community. We want to get to know our people and we want them to get to know us! At the heart of all we do remains the fundamental human intention and desire to connect,” she said.

“Cantor Dunkerley’s impressive qualifications are only part of the reason we are so excited to have her join the TBC family,” June Mara, president-elect of the TBC Board of Trustees, said. “Her warmth, spirit of inclusion, exuberance, and spirituality will serve our entire congregation while welcoming congregants back both virtually and, eventually, in-person to our building.”

Dunkerley, her husband John, a musician, and their daughter Rosella, are in the process of finding their new home in the Wilton area. Dunkerley grew up in Annandale, VA and graduated cum laude with honors from Mary Washington College, earning a Bachelor of Arts Degree in musical theatre with a concentration in vocal performance and acting. She holds a master’s degree in Sacred Music from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and was ordained in May 2019.

Temple B’nai Chaim is located at 82 Portland Ave. in Georgetown, CT. To explore membership or learn about upcoming programs, please call 203.544.8695 or visit the TBC website.