Ben Pagliaro never intended to become a cantorial soloist, but since July he’s been playing that part at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville.
When his fiancée, Rabbi Bailey Romano, became religious school director at Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, he was down for the ride from Cincinnati to Washington.
He thought that being a cantorial soloist would be interesting.“I’m a pretty spiritual person, so things showing up in my life and hearing of an opportunity — I don’t think they are random,” he said. “I feel connected to God.”
At Temple Beth Ami, the 26-year-old has been an apprentice of sorts to
Cantor Larry Eschler.
“He’s teaching me the many, many pieces about what it means to be a cantor. At the same time, I come in with my own skills in worship leading,” he said.
And so far, he’s loving it — helping to lead services, planning programs and combining rap and Jewish song.
Pagliaro has held a few musical teaching positions in other Jewish communities, but this is his first clergy position. As a kid, he entered a program for the musically talented.
“My first instrument was the piano. And then when I was in third grade, I got into the Suzuki program. Basically they test you for a musical ear. If you get a certain score, they [assign] you an instrument,” he said. He was assigned the violin.
While he still plays, he eventually took voice lessons and took part in his school’s chorus.
He learned to play guitar, among other instruments.
In his senior year of college, where he studied music theory, he began to think about combining his passions.
“One day a friend came to me and said, ‘I think you would be a good song leader.’ And I was like, ‘What’s that?’ That’s sort of my origin story,” he said.
From his first day at Temple Beth Ami, he was bought into clergy meetings to design the synagogue’s complex High Holiday schedule.
Actually leading the services, though, was difficult, he said.
“The hardest part was the stamina. You start out with Rosh Hashanah and you’re like, ‘I feel accomplished. I can do this.’ And then 10 days later [at Yom Kippur], you have to do the whole thing again, without eating,” he said. “I probably underestimated how much energy I would need to make it through.”
And though he wasn’t able to celebrate the holidays with his family or with his fiancée, he’s happy to have spent them at Beth Ami.
“[The congregants] can see I’m connecting to them more than just on a musical level,” he said. “I’ve feel like I’ve been welcomed with such open arms.”