By Zoe Bell
Belmont University student Ayla Schwartz is a cantorial intern at The Temple, hopes to attend Hebrew Union College for cantorial ordination.
When dyslexia made it challenging for Ayla Schwartz to learn Hebrew verses for her bat mitzvah, her Frenchtown, New Jersey cantor turned the Torah into melody, kindling her passion for Jewish music. Now, in Nashville, Schwartz is The Temple’s first cantorial intern.
“I have been singing for as long as I can remember, …and it wasn’t until my bat mitzvah that I fell in love with Jewish music specifically, and then through that, fell in love with Judaism,” Schwartz told The Jewish Observer Nashville. “ …I fell in love with the religion and said that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Internship at The Temple
As cantorial intern, Schwartz, a senior at Belmont University, studies under Cantor Tracy Fishbein of The Temple. Schwartz’s responsibilities include teaching Sunday school, working with the rabbis at The Temple, learning how to teach Torah and Hebrew, helping tweens prepare for bar and bat mitzvahs, attending community members’ lifecycle events, singing liturgical music, and leading prayer in the synagogue.
Schwartz said she has taken singing lessons and performed in vocal competitions.
“I personally think music is the best way to feel close to God and being able to sing for services and to help people pray in the way that they want to pray through music is such a beautiful thing,” said Schwartz, who studies commercial music and business at Belmont.
On any weekday, Schwartz finds herself at The Temple practicing for Shabbat services, reviewing her prayers, learning Hebrew, or observing other congregations’ Shabbat services. She works 20 to 23 hours a week.
Schwartz first connected with The Temple in 2020 when a freshman year professor asked students to write about someone in their field of study for an assignment. She reached out to several cantors across Nashville and Fishbein replied. In April 2022, Fishbein was featured in a Jewish music concert hosted by Belmont. Schwartz said they reconnected and Fishbein offered to mentor her.
“[The Temple] is just so welcoming…” Schwartz said. “I didn’t even think I could intern as a cantor and [Fishbein] has offered to mentor me. She’s offered for me to be here. They offered me a teaching position. These weren’t things I necessarily asked for; they were just so excited to have someone and help them learn whatever they wanted to learn. I love that and I think that’s what Judaism is: being open and being there for the stranger…”
Fishbein said she was excited to meet Schwartz in 2020, but the pandemic delayed her plans of helping Schwartz get involved with The Temple.
“Ayla is strong in many ways,” Fishbein said. “She is a beautiful presence on the pulpit, always singing from her soul. She is also a compassionate and kind person who wants to be of service [to] the Jewish community.”
For the past year, Schwartz has taught Israeli and Jewish history and geography to The Temple’s fifth grade Sunday school class. She began her cantorial internship in May for college credit at Belmont and will intern at The Temple for a year.
Being Jewish at a Christ-centered school
Schwartz is among the less than one percent of Jewish students enrolled at Belmont, a “Christ-centered private university,” according to the school’s website.
“At first it was hard,” Schwartz said of being Jewish at Belmont. “It wasn’t so hard — they’re very open — but it is a Christian school. I knew that going into it. …When it came to my faith, it was awkward at times because they have this thing called WELL Core and part of it is going to chapel services. For me, it was helpful because if I’m going to go into the world of faith, I should be knowledgeable in what other religions do, but I know for other Jewish students, that can be very uncomfortable or awkward.”
She added that some of her professors begin their classes with prayer.
“Most were very good and wouldn’t specify Jesus, but some did,” Schwartz said of her professors. “And that could make a Jewish student uncomfortable. Other than that, though, Belmont is very accepting; a great school to go to.”
Since Belmont does not currently have a Hillel organization on campus, Schwartz and other Jewish students at Belmont are involved with Vanderbilt University’s Hillel, where Schwartz served on the Jewish Life Committee.
Schwartz said she also hosted High Holy day services in her dorm room or a friend’s room to help foster the Jewish community at Belmont.
“[Meeting other Jewish students] was part of my job that I took on to help Jewish students find comfortability in being Jewish and find a place to go if they wanted for High Holy days or just a place to go to be comfortable being Jewish and who they are,” Schwartz said.
Looking to the future
Schwartz will graduate from Belmont next August, after a summer of taking three courses, one of which is the internship at The Temple. After her internship concludes in May 2024, Schwartz said she plans to apply to Hebrew Union College in New York to be ordained as a cantor.
For now, Schwartz will continue showing up to The Temple on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, most of the day Fridays and some Saturday mornings. She will also teach on Sundays at the start of the school year.
“I’m here all the time; I love it,” Schwartz said.