Cantor Sarah Sager said she ended up in her profession by accident.
Sager graduated from Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., and decided to pursue a professional career while at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
After accelerating her undergraduate studies at Brown and enrolling at New England Conservatory in a master’s program, while finishing her master’s thesis she decided to try her luck in New York City, where she landed an apartment on the Upper West Side. A friend told her that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music (now the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music) was accepting women and that she might want to consider that as a way of supporting herself.
“I got on my bicycle and I rode over to this building on West 68th Street and I went up to the office and walked up to a woman sitting behind the desk and said I’d like to apply for the cantorial school,” Sager said. “She said, ‘Well, we’re accepting applications for next year. I said, ‘Well, I’d like to go now.’”
The woman told Sager if she returned the application form quickly, she would process it quickly.
“One or two days later I went back and marched up to the main office again,” Sager said. “She looks up from her desk. She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re back.’”
Sager told her she was there to return her application. The cantorial entrance committee happened to be meeting that day for the following year’s applicants.
“The head of the committee was standing right nearby this exchange that I was having. He saw me and said, ‘Could you sing for us now?’” Sager recalled. “So I got back on my bicycle, rode back to my apartment, changed my clothes, I grabbed two pieces of music off my piano. I got into a taxi and went back to the school of sacred music and I sang for them right then and there. And as I recall it was on a Thursday and on Monday I was in school.”
Sager has been at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple since 1980. She is the longest-serving member of the clergy at the Beachwood congregation and in July will move to a part-time role as cantor laureate.
While the nature of her work offers her daily highlights, a standout moment in her career arose indirectly from her invitation to be a scholar-in-residence in the early 1990s for a regional assembly of Women of Reform Judaism. In her remarks, she charged the group to commission a women’s commentary. In 1993, she was invited to be keynote speaker of the national convention. There she offered the same charge.
With more than 200 female scholars contributing, “Torah: A Women’s Commentary” was published in 2008. Sager penned the preface and a contemporary commentary on Bechukotai.
“I wanted it to be scholarly,” Sager said. “Torah does speak to me.”
Sager said she finds particular settings to liturgical texts work and that others don’t.
“It’s actually sometimes a matter of mood and circumstance than even composer,” she said. “The (Max) Janowski Avinu Malkheinu is an absolute favorite of course.”
Asked about her ethical grounding, Sager spoke of her parents, Richard and the late Joy Sager.
“Over and over again, I think of her as someone who just had a sense of how one should be in the world,” she said. “You knew there was a right way of being. And she always lived by that.”
Notwithstanding her pride in the women’s commentary, Sager said she treasures each day on the job.
“Every day is a highlight in my career,” she said. “And that really is true. Because that’s the work. And the truth is that I’m not one of those people who believes that life is lived in these peak moments. Because I really don’t. I do believe life is lived day by day. And I believe that’s where Judaism has its greatest message for all of us.”