A Birthright trip to Israel reignited Sierra Fox’s passion for both Judaism and music.
Fox, a cantorial student intern at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, was raised, well, “Jew-ish.”
“I didn’t grow up terribly immersed in Jewish life,” Fox told the Chronicle. “My parents weren’t particularly observant. We did Hanukkah parties with relatives, we’d do Passover, but I didn’t have a traditional bat mitzvah experience, didn’t go to Hebrew school or camp.”
What she did have from a young age was a passion for Jewish music. The 31-year-old Brooklyn resident said when she was 7 she attended her cousin’s bat mitzvah and told her grandfather she wanted to be a cantor.
“He said girls can’t be cantors, so I tabled it,” Fox recalled.
Her parents may not have provided a deep Jewish upbringing, preferring to allow Fox and her sibling to find their own paths to spirituality, but they did instill a love of music. Her father, a world religions and Asian philosophy professor at the University of Delaware, and her mother, a potter, played in a folk-style band together. Fox said she grew up hearing her father play guitar and listening to the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and other classic rock artists.
When it came time for Fox to choose a career, she applied to Syracuse University and was accepted in the school’s voice performance program. Although her musical tastes growing up were mostly influenced by her parents, she said, she eventually developed her own preferences.
“The first CDs I bought for myself were Joni Mitchell and Beethoven’s piano sonatas,” Fox said. “I just listened to them over and over.”
That fascination turned to love at Syracuse, she said, where she found her place in classical music, specifically the chordal world.
Fox spent time at Temple University after receiving her undergraduate degree. While there, she began singing at Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, a decidedly non-Jewish house of worship, but one she remembered as a “beautiful place to sing.”
The next chapter of Fox’s life began when another member of the choir asked her to fill in at a concert at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Philadelphia. Soon, Fox moved beyond her role as a choral substitute there, and began singing at the congregation’s concerts, Shabbat services and eventually its High Holiday services.
Then, a few days before her 26th birthday, Fox decided to go to Israel as part of the Birthright program.
“It was life-changing,” she said.
At the time of the trip, Fox was having doubts about life. She had left the graduate program at Temple and was thinking of leaving music, but things changed when she participated in a b’nai mitzvah experience to affirm or reaffirm Jewish identity on the trip, and she needed to choose a Hebrew name.
The man organizing the rite of passage and his 12-year-old son had a suggestion: Shira.
“I asked what it meant and they said ‘song,’” Fox said. “Something inside of me clicked.”
Fate seemingly continued to play a large part in Fox’s experience in Israel. A woman she was traveling with gave her a folded piece of paper and told her to open it when the time was right. When she decided the moment had come, Fox opened it and the words affirmed her decision to delve deeper into Judaism and music:
“It said, ‘You are a beacon of light. You are a healer. I’m not sure being here will answer all the questions you have right now but you are in exactly the right place at the right time,’” Fox recalled.
Upon returning to the States, Fox continued to sing at Keneseth Israel, and she became the alto section leader in the choir when she had the opportunity to fill in for Cantor Amy Levy.
The experience helped Fox decide to attend the Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. As part of the program, students are given the opportunity to intern at a Reform congregation.
Fox said Temple Emanuel was her first choice.
“I love Temple [Emanuel],” she said.
The intern has been singing regularly at the synagogue since August, but was given an opportunity for a new experience during the High Holidays — delivering a sermon to the congregation.
Calling the work of a cantor, “not a singing job, but a job that involves singing,” Fox was “floored by the opportunity,” she said, calling the congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Meyer a very giving and nurturing person.
Meyer said he and the congregation are thrilled to work with Fox.
“Temple is so excited to have Sierra Fox with us for the 5782 year,” Meyer told the Chronicle. “The congregation is enriched by Sierra’s voice, her pastoral presence and her desire to forge relationships — and we hope to enrich her experience as a student by including her in all facets of congregational life.”
Fox said she will be at Temple Emanuel about every other weekend until April, before departing with her cantorial class at HUC to study for a year where her journey began — Israel. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.