When Sally Heckelman joined Kol Shalom in 2005, she had no idea how far the support from her new community would carry her.
Nearly two decades later, members of the Rockville synagogue gathered during the Shabbat of Jan. 13-14 to celebrate Heckelman’s ordination as a cantor. It was a musical celebration with singing and Heckelman’s own guitar playing. The brand new cantor said the opportunity to sing with her daughter was especially enjoyable.
“It was just beautiful,” said Heckelman, 61. “I felt very loved and held by everybody.”
There were 125 people at a festive dinner in her honor. Rabbi Emeritus Jonathan Maltzman, who has known Heckelman for more than 30 years, took the opportunity to extol her character.
“Sally, you are a joy to work with and to collaborate with. Your infectious smile and sense of kavanah [intention] are contagious,” Maltzman said. “I believe that you have become one of the finest shlichei tzibbur [cantors] in the country.”
In addition to Maltzman’s speech, a member of the congregation, Ken Eckmann, read some of his own poetry in appreciation of Heckelman’s work.
Before her ordination, Heckelman became Kol Shalom’s director of engagement. In this position, she creates programs to keep members involved.
“I’ve always loved working with children. I get to do a little bit of everything at my job. I do programming to keep the members engaged and stimulate them in different ways. We have a women’s Rosh Chodesh group and I organized that with other laypeople in the congregation,” Heckelman said.
Maltzman said Heckelman’s role was vital during the pandemic.
“She kept the congregation together when we weren’t meeting in person. This [was] a result of her charisma and personality,” Maltzman said, “She’s the most positive person I’ve ever met. She’s very talented and knowledgeable.”
Heckelman credits her background in social work with helping her become aware of the importance of involveing everyone in the community. Heckelman said that the engagement aspect of her job became more intentional three years ago as the pandemic began to swell.
She noted that she’s an example of a congregant who becomes more involved in synagogue life.
“Pretty soon after joining the synagogue I became a shlichat tzibur [prayer leader]. I learned to read musaf and shacharit [the afternoon and morning services] and was part of the rotation with other people,” she said.
“Twelve years ago I was asked to be hazzan [cantor]. After doing that for a couple years I realized I really wanted to know more myself. I began my quest for my own learning,” Heckelman said.
Her quest began at the Aleph Jewish Renewal Cantorial Program, while she juggled the pandemic, Zoom services and being a wife and mother who at times was working up to four different jobs. She said the strong community at Kol Shalom pushed and encouraged her toward ordination.
“Kol Shalom is a nurturing, caring community of people. We are a smaller congregation, there’s a real sense of caring for everybody and wanting the shul to grow and meet people’s needs, making sure people are welcome and included. I love that it’s very participatory. As a prayer leader, there is nothing more wonderful than hearing their voices coming back at you,” Heckelman said.
Family was another pillar of support for Heckelman, throughout her life. She was born in Buffalo, N.Y. Her parents encouraged and nurtured her love for music alongside her Jewish education. She attended Jewish day school and became a bat mitzvah.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in Judaic studies and a master’s degree in social work from Wurzweiler School of Social Work at Yeshiva University. Heckelman and her husband live in the Kemp Mill neighborhood. They have four adult children.
“I just really want to share gratitude to have been able to do this at this time in my life,” she said. “I hope I can inspire others that it’s never too late to learn and expand your wheelhouse. I’m grateful for the wonderful congregation that inspired me to take this journey, I might not have done it otherwise.” ■