Hasha Perman sees herself as a "spiritual facilitator and teacher." As the cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Perman uses her voice and her spirituality to enhance the congregation's religious experience.
There are those who say she is the experience.
Perman, 61, had a dream when she was 40 that she would become a cantor in a synagogue. A singer and artist, Perman spent years performing with klezmer bands in nightclubs and with some of the best Russian klezmer musicians. But singing in a synagogue as a cantor?
"I never imagined this — little girls didn't do this," she said.
At one time, there were no women cantors. Women weren't allowed to have bat mitzvahs and couldn't read from the Torah.
"When I went to college, I wasn't thinking of being a cantor," Perman said.
Once the idea was in her head, she began to consider the option.
"I grew up instilled with a Jewish musical tradition that included Yiddish and Hebrew," she said.
A Skokie resident, she performed for years in folk clubs in Chicago with recent Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union, where to be a Jewish musician and to be successful "you had to be the best," she said.
"When I was doing my shows, it was all Jewish themes and music," Perman said. "I realized I could do it in a synagogue and I could do it in a place where it had more significance and permanence."
She started to study and take classes toward becoming a cantor, when only six months later one of her teachers said: "I have a job for you."
"I couldn't believe it," Perman said. "I had so much to learn."
With so many compositions that are part of the Jewish legacy, Perman knew she had much more to learn. The job was at Naperville's Congregation Beth Shalom, and Perman did her best.
After a year, she moved on to another position with a different synagogue and kept up her studies, eventually returning to Congregation Beth Shalom, where she has worked for 15 years. After 10 years of study she earned the title of cantor. She works at "CBS" three days a week and also at the Solomon Schechter Day School in Skokie.
"I continue to do a lot of study as a cantor," Perman said. "My job is to create a vessel for people to create their own spirituality."
Cindy Effron has belonged to Congregation Beth Shalom for a little more than eight years. During that time, the congregation has had three different rabbis, but Hasha Perman has been the constant, Effron said.
"Hasha doesn't add to the experience, she is the experience," she said. "She's not a person, she's a force. She's so dynamic and so joyful and joyous in leading us in songs and in prayer."
Perman is very engaged and dedicated to what she does, Effron said, adding that over the years the two have grown very close.
Effron said that what you see if what you get with Perman.
"She's the real deal. She is so vibrant and involved in what she does. That passion for being a cantor is so contagious."
Yet, it took Perman years to realize she wasn't living her dream. She started out in theater, then earned a second degree in graphic design before earning a third degree in music.
"I was going in the wrong direction," she said.
For an artist, finding a career doing something meaningful can be very difficult.
"It's very hard for an artist to make a living and a make a go of it," Perman said. "This is a blessing."
Now, Perman is able to share the communal vision of her people, the traditions, the moral and transcendent values of Judaism, she said. While her voice is what others may want to hear, her goal is to have the congregation lift up its voice.
While she thinks her voice is calming to those who attend Congregation Beth Shalom, she also finds that the experience can be extremely moving.
"I have to control myself so I don't weep," she said. "We are part of the same community and sometimes I am overcome by the passion."