Music has been such a force in Paula Baruch’s life that her mother would joke that she came out of the womb singing.
Baruch’s sweet voice has rarely been silent since then. Music and a love of teaching have taken her to the mountains of Colombia, northern British Columbia and a handful of cities across Ontario. On Oct. 14, it will take her to the bimah of Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Sholom, in her new career as a fully ordained cantor.
It’s a journey that started on a small dairy farm in Owen Sound, Ont., where her father’s 25 cattle were her first audience.
“Owen Sound was a beautiful place to grow up,” she recalled. “Our land didn’t grow much, but it was good for grazing. I’d sing to the cattle and felt like I was performing in Albert Hall.”
In those days, Baruch – her birth name was Barfoot – was a member of the United Church and knew little about Jews, other than as characters in the Old Testament.
“Back then, I really didn’t know Jews existed,” she said. “I had no awareness in my isolated world that Jews existed in the modern world.”
That lack of awareness started to change when Baruch and her mother moved away from the farm and into metropolitan Owen Sound, where the bustling local arts scene exposed the blossoming girl to theatre, music, mime and skit writing. It was a starring role in a local production of The Diary of Anne Frank, however, that started to open her 15-year-old eyes to the Jewish world.
“Playing that role turned out to be completely life changing for me,” she said. “I identified with Anne Frank’s interests and artistry, I learned about the Holocaust for the first time. It was all like a veil was lifted for me.”
Her interest in Judaism deepened during the year she spent at York University in Toronto, where she studied theatre.
“In the Jewish sense, York University was a kind of homecoming. In my dorm, everyone was Jewish, except my roommate and me,” she said. “By the end of that first year, I knew I had to go to Israel, because that’s where I would get to understand this Jewish thing I was into and wanted to join.”
For the next two years, Baruch pursued her growing fascination with Judaism, studying the ancient texts of the faith and working by day as a convention organizer in Tel Aviv. After six months, she began a formal Orthodox conversion process.
“What I remember most about that conversion program was the amount of cooking involved,” she said of the focus on training potential converts to keep a kosher home. “I don’t love cooking, but I do love the learning.”
I had no awareness in my isolated world that Jews existed in the modern world.
– Paula Baruch
Shortly after that, Baruch returned to Ontario, intent on finishing her university education. She enrolled at the University of Guelph, where she studied theatre and economics, and joined the Jewish students’ club. On a joint project with University of Waterloo Jewish students, she met and grew close to Jordan Cohen. There was talk of marriage, but in the end, Cohen went off to a seminary and Baruch went to Queen’s University to do a degree in education, before spending a year each in Colombia and northern British Columbia, teaching English, music and theatre.
Back in Canada, Baruch held a number of teaching jobs, moved to Hamilton while her first husband was a medical student at McMaster University and gave birth to four children. The couple then moved to Peterborough, Ont., where her husband set up a medical practice. Yet the marriage eventually foundered.
Then, out of the blue one day, an email appeared from Jordan Cohen, himself just out of a marriage and back in Canada after serving as a pulpit rabbi in Australia and Hong Kong. The couple reconnected and eventually married. They moved to Hamilton when Cohen was named rabbi at Temple Anshe Sholom. Baruch became program director and shared the role of cantorial soloist.
As Baruch’s appreciation for Jewish music deepened, she hit on the idea of applying to Hebrew Union College’s new cantorial certification program. It is a four-year course that prepares cantorial soloists for full ordination, without full-time study.
“It was a huge financial commitment. And yes, there were times when I felt I should quit,” she said. “I have to credit my husband with saying, ‘We’re going to get through this.’ ”
Baruch was formally installed in her new position by Cantor Rebecca Moses, who served Anshe Sholom for three years, before moving to New Jersey. She mentored Baruch through her studies and thinks her protégé has all the skills needed for a successful career.
“I think Paula brings a great love of both the community and Jewish music,” she said. “To meet people’s needs musically is very personal. You have to meet the needs of the community as a whole and the people in your seats. Paula brings both the desire and ability to do that.”
Working with Paula was, for me, a series of wonders.
– Laura Wolfson
To earn her ordination, Moses said Baruch was required to master a deep body of knowledge of Jewish music and tradition.
“It’s a lot to master. You are asked to understand everything from historical Jewish music to modern, and how it all fits together. If that isn’t daunting, I don’t know what is,” Moses said.
She added that being installed by another cantor represents passing on the tradition. “It’s a nice moment to bring in another clergy person who has impacted your studies. It’s a reminder that you are never alone as a clergy.”
Laura Wolfson, Anshe Sholom’s former soloist and education director, used to work with Baruch and said that she has an unbounded body of energy and imagination.
“Working with Paula was, for me, a series of wonders. When it comes to community events and celebrations, Paula is a creative genius. She has an inspired vision of how things can be in future and she thinks big,” Wolfson wrote in an email to The CJN. “Whereas others might say, ‘wouldn’t it be great if,’ she would say, ‘let’s make it happen.’ When she has an idea, she is unstoppable and her enthusiasm is so palpable that congregants and community members jump right in to make the dream a reality.
“Paula is so naturally talented musically, it was always a pleasure to sing with her. She harmonizes without any effort, even when she’s just heard a melody for the first time. She has a keen sense of the connection between music and spirit, and it comes through in every aspect of her leadership as a cantor.”