Wilton cantor says new role ‘feels likes a true match’

It took a while, but Harriet Dunkerley finally put her two passions together — Judaism and music — and now she is continuing her spiritual and professional journey as Cantor Dunkerley at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown.

It is a difficult time to be taking over a religious congregation, but she is settling into the role she began just a week or so ago, very aware of the challenges before her.

Any new position such as this begins with developing a sense of community and belonging, but now, “creating a sense of connectedness, and building relationships virtually will be the greatest challenge,” she said.

Taking the optimistic point of view, she added, “it will be an opportunity to be creative, authentic and honest.”

Taking that optimism a step further, she is looking forward to “dreaming together with the congregation” in what they hope for the future.

“I know the congregation is eager to expand our reach,” she said. “We are eager to reimagine what might be possible in our religious school. We are also eager to invigorate our worship.

“How would we make our synagogue a light to the rest of the community? Our synagogue is not just a building for Jews to gather. It’s a place for everyone to be welcome, to learn and experience.”

To that end, she said she is “so looking forward” to working with her counterparts among Wilton’s clergy.

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Why a cantor?

Temple B’nai Chaim’s previous leaders have been rabbis, but as a cantor, Dunkerley said she is on the same spiritual footing as a rabbi.

“The generally accepted leadership model inside the reform synagogue is that the rabbi is usually the one in charge,” she said. “I think it speaks volumes that they have chosen as their primary clergy a cantor. The way they view music, and the ability of music to reach us and communicate in words, sometimes the spoken word doesn’t do.”

The training for rabbis and cantors is essentially the same, Dunkerley said, with each completing five years of education and spending their first year in Israel. She is trained in leading worship, clinical pastoral education, counseling and officiating at life cycle events such as a briss and bar and bat mitzvah.

While rabbis focus more on the spoken word of sacred texts such as the Hebrew code and Talmud, cantors are trained in chanting prayers and the Torah.

“Cantors are trained as liturgical experts,” she said, in “everything from weekday to shabbat to festivals such as Sukkot and Pesach, and of course High Holidays. We spend a tremendous amount of time delving into liturgy, its meaning, history and evolution, and the way it sounds.

“We spend a lot of time training in the sound of the Jewish sacred times, learning all the various Jewish modes, the way people will go into a High Holiday service and suddenly all the melodies they are used to hearing sound different. They sound different because the High Holidays have a gravitas that weekday or shabbat services don’t.”

“Although having the sole clergy being a cantor is the exception, there are others out there,” she said, adding, “I’m just thrilled Temple B’nai Chaim is among those exceptions. It’s really exciting; there’s so much we can offer.”

Unusual path

Dunkerley sees it as an advantage that she did not go to cantorial school right out of college. She worked not only as an actress and singer, but also as a retail bank branch manager, which she said allowed her to develop a skill set that will serve her well as a leader of a synagogue, both spiritually and practically.

She’s worked with people from all backgrounds — helping them learn to meet a goal, how to improve their credit — basically, she said, learning how to listen and build relationships and trust. She also learned how to create and read a budget.

During her studies, Dunkerley participated in a pastoral education unit through Mount Sinai in Manhattan where for 10 weeks she worked with families whose loved ones were in the hospital. The patients she served ranged from stroke survivors undergoing rehab to women with high-risk pregnancies who had previously lost a child to ER trauma cases.

“That was a very powerful summer that really impacted my cantorate today in a pretty significant way,” she said.

Long time coming

Dunkerley said she felt called to the cantorate for many years but tuned out that calling for a number of different reasons. “I ran in the other direction,” she said. Then, the older she became — getting married, owning a home, having a child — the less confident she was about returning to school.

“It was actually the birth of our daughter that helped bring me back in a powerful way to Judaism and an accounting of my life and priorities,” she said. “I realized I was unable to be the mother I was committed to be if I was unable or unwilling to pursue my own dreams and passions.

“How could I encourage this daughter, this miracle, to be all she could be to follow her passions if I was unable to require the same for myself? I would be an inauthentic role model. I came to a point where I couldn’t do that anymore,” she said.

“It required a big leap, but fortunately I leapt and here I am.”

Now, Dunkerley is in the process of moving from Rockland County in New York to Wilton with her musician husband John, whom she met while both were working in musical theater, her 13-year-old daughter Rosella, and their two cats and rescue dog named Bubba.

When she’s not at temple, she enjoys cooking and exploring fine wines. She loves spending time with her family, running, hiking in the woods, spending time at the beach, yoga, and of course, listening to live music.

Dunkerley has led her first service, and feels “so blessed to have found my new spiritual home” with a congregation of “just extraordinary, phenomenal people.”

“I feel so incredibly supported and welcome, and that’s not always the case for new clergy,” she said.

The interview process, handled virtually, included numerous small-group meetings where Dunkerley was able to speak with a variety of the congregation, from founding members to teens.

“That to me speaks volumes about the kind of place that is Temple B’nai Chaim,” she said.

When she got the call the temple had selected her, “I was dancing around my living room,” she said. “It feels likes a true match. I’m very grateful and very excited about what many, many years together will reveal.”

As for moving to Wilton, she said, finding a home “feels like a great beam of hope and light in a challenging journey over the past few months.”