Corrected Oct. 17, 2022, 11:45 a.m.
Suzanne Hamstra joined Washington Hebrew Congregation as assistant cantor, the latest addition to the women-led clergy and staff.
The District synagogue’s newest clergy member has trekked her way across the nation, and even to Israel, before settling down for her first posting outside of cantorial school. “My journey was roundabout,” said Hamstra, who began her tenure in June.
Having grown up in Santa Cruz, Calif., Hamstra ingratiated herself in every aspect of the performing arts, from the violin to theater. She received her bachelor’s degree from the Boston Conservatory and her master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, both in classical voice performance.
Hamstra spent several years as a freelance opera singer. “I loved the performing arts as a kid,” she said. “My family is really musical. For a long time, just the performing arts was really fulfilling. Then I realized I could be doing something more with my voice.”
The daughter of folk musicians and bagel bakers, Hamstra said the jobs as a freelance opera singer she felt most connected to were cantorial in some aspect. So, she decided to apply to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.
Before finding a place to lay down roots in D.C., Hamstra served as the cantorial soloist at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, a cantorial intern at Kehillat Yozma in Modi’in, Israel, a student cantor at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Conn. and, for the last two years, a student cantor at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, in South Orange, N.J.
“For me, the transition to Jerusalem was easier than the transition to New York,” Hamstra joked. In Israel, she experienced something she had never felt before. “I looked around and everyone looked like me. There’s something magical about being in Jerusalem where everything slows down for Shabbat and our history and our connection is alive and right there.”
Feeling the call to pursue her cantorship, she moved back to the United States and now finds herself in the nation’s capital. “It’s a really exciting new chapter in Washington Hebrew’s history and I feel really lucky to get to be a part of it,” she said. “I have a feeling it’s going to be exciting even when it’s no longer new.”
Hamstra joins Washington Hebrew Congregation’s first women-led clergy. Said Senior Cantor Susan Bortnick, “When I came [in 2001], I came with two female rabbis. We were a trio. All of a sudden, the clergy exploded with female rabbis.”
Bortnick took up the role in 2020 when Cantor Mikhail Manevich set to retire. Lindsay Feldman assumed the executive directorship in 2022 and most recently Susan Shankman became the senior rabbi in August, following the retirement of Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig.
“I really want to replicate the mentorship I had with Suzanne,” Bortnick said. “It’s an exciting place to work and you get to work with some amazing people.”
Bortnick said the congregation has seen many changes in the last few years, particularly when it comes to worship. “We want to make it feel like home for our congregants.”
Washington Hebrew Congregation will mark the new chapter of leaders at a celebration of Lustig’s 36 years of service on Oct. 14.
Corrections: The identities and titles of some members of the clergy at Washington Hebrew Congregation have been corrected. M. Bruce Lustig was senior rabbi and is now rabbi emeritus. Senior Cantor Susan Bortnick fills the position previously held by Senior Cantor Mikhail Manevich, who is now cantor emeritus.