“It has been an extraordinary experience, and the best shidduch,” said Cantor Shula Kalir-Merton of her relationship with Temple Beth El. She has served as cantor there since 1988, and this June she will retire. At the time Kalir-Merton came to the temple “we were a little mom and pop shop in a strip mall above a store holding services in a church; we were truly a group of wandering Jews – barely 200.” Today the congregation is nearly 700 families.
It was Rabbi Allen Krause (zt”l), who suggested Kalir-Merton become a cantor upon hearing her perform. She entered the cantorate and completed the four-year course of cantorial studies in three years under the tutelage of Cantor William Sharlin in Los Angeles. Her background had prepared her well.
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Israel, Kalir-Merton is the daughter of the late Rabbi Joseph Kalir and Hilda Kalir, both Holocaust survivors from Germany. Having a father as a rabbi meant Kalir-Merton was well versed in liturgy. In Israel her father was a teacher, unable to serve as a rabbi because he wasn’t Orthodox. She was always musically inclined and studied piano as a child. She has been taking voice lessons for decades.
After many years in Israel, the Kalir family moved to Sweden, where her father served as a rabbi. The family ultimately moved to the east coast of the U.S. There, Rabbi Kalir was a professor. He then served as the chair of the religious studies department at Cal State Fullerton until his death in1988. Kalir-Merton’s mother, who died in 2003, was the artist; she painted, danced, sang, played the piano “and luckily transmitted that gene to me,” said Kalir-Merton.
While Kalir-Merton received her early education in Israel and her secondary education in Goteborg, Sweden, she attended Boston University and the Hebrew Teachers College in Boston, Massachusetts. Then came her move to the west coast to work in the field of Jewish education and to exercise her passion for Jewish music. She performed as a vocalist on the local Jewish scene, in several tours of college campuses in the western states and in concerts throughout Europe. It was during this time that Rabbi Krause heard her sing.
“I felt that all the paths I have traveled led me to Temple Beth El,” said Kalir-Merton. “While I love the musical aspect of my work (to me God lives in the music), I love the connection with the congregants just as enthusiastically. I love the feeling that our interactions can make a positive difference in their lives.”
Through the years, Kalir-Merton served the congregation in many capacities. Certainly the centerpiece of her position was the traditional cantorial role on the bimah, where she has had the pleasure of introducing several world premiere Shabbat services by local composers including Ami Aloni, Meir Finklestein and Gordon Lustig.
But there were many other roles she played: training the many Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, teaching classes in Hebrew and Torah cantillation and a variety of other subjects, both Judaic and musical, to adults and children. And let’s not forget her role as clergy member in all manner of pastoral care, including visiting ailing congregants, counseling and more. In the early days she was also in charge of the chavurah program.
“My favorite thing was teaching the adult B’nai Mitzvah,” she said. “They have such an appreciation and love of learning – that is all a teacher could ask for.”
“And now it is time to retire,” said Kalir-Merton. She explained that if she weren’t a cantor for whom the voice is a centerpiece of the profession, she would have retired later. “But the voice” she said, “is one of the things that has created a powerful connection between the congregation and me.”
And while Kalir-Merton continues to nurture her voice and has taken voice lessons every week since becoming a cantor, “you reach a certain age and along with everything else, vocal chords begin to age as well.” Kalir-Merton maintains a high standard, and, “I want to leave while I am still at the top of my game. I vowed that to myself a long time ago upon hearing a highly renowned, but aging cantor sing and not able to hit the right notes. That was not going to be me!”
Kalir-Merton is facing the future with the same enthusiasm and energy that she brought to her congregation. “I see the future as a question mark and am open to grabbing what comes my way; very clearly there will be music involved, because my soul is music,” she said. And learning will also be a part of her future.
“I’ve always loved learning languages, and so I am going to sign up for many language classes,” she said. “I’ll probably be involved in a variety of volunteer activities; and at some point my son and his wife will bless me with a grandchild. That’s probably one of the things I look forward to the most!”
And so as Kalir-Merton looks back over the years she served as cantor, it is not so much the growth in numbers that she marvels at, but the interrelationships between people and intensity of feeling that developed between the clergy and congregants. “It has been the ultimate journey of my life, experiencing all that we have given each other – the congregation and myself,” she said. “I am just so grateful to have had this kind of privilege.”
Shortly before Rabbi Krause’s death, Kalir-Merton visited him, mostly to say goodbye. “I told Rabbi Krause that serving as cantor at Temple Beth El felt had been a highlight of my life and that I knew this is where I was supposed to be; and that he had been God’s instrument. His parting words were ‘we really built something good.’ Yes, we did!”
Cantor Shula Kalir-Merton will be honored along with Linda Kirsch who has been the director of education at Temple Beth El since 1987, and Administrative Assistant Fay Zeramby at Temple Beth El’s annual gala event, Sunday, May 6, at Harborside in Newport Beach. For details, call (949) 362-3999.