Cantor’s ‘Wings of Rafael’ prayers support healing process

As Kelly Thiemann settled into her chair at an outpatient cancer treatment center in 2011, clear chemotherapy liquids flowing in through the port in her chest, she put on her headphones and pressed play.

A slow melodic chant filled her ears. She was listening to a recording of Sharon Bernstein, her cantor at San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, singing the Shehechiyanu prayer, which gives thanks for having arrived at this moment. Then she looked at Bernstein’s accompanying email and contemplated what it meant to be starting her treatment journey.

For the next six months, Thiemann received an email from Bernstein before every chemo treatment — with a recorded prayer and questions to help her explore the prayer’s meaning.

“I read somewhere that when Phyllis Mintzer (Sha’ar Zahav’s religious school founder) had her first chemo treatment, she said Shehechiyanu. I thought that was beautiful,” Bernstein said, explaining why she sent the messages to Thiemann. “The intention for these recordings was to create a journey that would support Kelly during her treatment and help her find a way to feel spiritually connected to what was happening.”

What started as this series of impromptu melodic recordings has turned, five years later, into “Under the Wings of Rafa’el: Blessings, Songs, and Explorations for a Healing Path” — a full-length CD and accompanying book that includes 12 recorded prayers and 40 pages of dynamic exercises, insights and meditations. The project was funded by the Lloyd Symington Foundation.

Bernstein, who grew up in Palo Alto, has always found a connection between prayer and healing. Her first taste of cantorial work was at University of Redlands, where she led her friends in song at the Etz Hadar synagogue collective. In a poetry class during her freshman year, she learned how to close her eyes and experience emotion through language.

“Language isn’t always about understanding. When used in prayer, and poetry, it’s about experience. It is textural — each word comes with a series of nuances, of connections. It opens us up,” she said in an interview.

After working part time as a cantor at congregations in Arizona and Los Angeles in her 20s, Bernstein applied to cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“Jewish music can be improvisatory, and I wanted to learn how to include that more during prayer,” said Bernstein, who also performs. “I love the blues, all the emotion and the vibration, and I wanted to put that in prayer.

“There are vibrations in music that are healing. When I stand on the bimah, I’m not performing like I do when I play a show. It’s very different. Instead, I’m acting as a conduit, my voice is there to help bring everyone in the room into the prayer, into a connection with the prayers,” she said.

In Jerusalem in 1999-2000 and 2002-2003, she wrote a thesis on Italian cantillation and performed with a young Yiddish group. She led the Yiddish piano bar, playing traditional music in a Jerusalem basement as friends sang along and roosters crowed in the yard. She met the man who was to become her husband, Francesco Spagnolo — a scholar in Jewish studies, music and digital media — while doing research in Jerusalem’s Yiddish music archives.

Sharon Bernstein photo/hannah rubin

In 2003, Bernstein and Spagnolo moved to Berkeley to take up Spagnolo’s appointment as curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. In 2007, Bernstein was hired as the cantor at Sha’ar Zahav after four years at Beth Shalom in Novato.

Four years later, Thiemann was diagnosed with cancer and asked Bernstein for assistance incorporating prayer into her treatment.

“I felt very affected when Kelly got sick and wanted to do something about it,” Bernstein said. “I had already begun incorporating pastoral work into my cantorial practice — visiting hospice and ill congregants. I wanted to do more.”

A few years earlier, Bernstein had became certified in reiki — a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing — in order to send healing energy to a friend in England diagnosed with cancer. Now she decided to record herself singing a prayer for each of Thiemann’s 12 treatments and to write accompanying messages to help her engage with the words.

“The cancer center was a quiet, still place. And an internet dead zone. I would pick a chair by the window, try to see the redwood trees, and listen to Sharon’s recordings and do her exercises,” Thiemann, who is now in remission, recalled in a phone interview. “I remember one, for the prayer Hashkiveinu, that asked questions about what it means to have a shelter and how it feels — I was struck by that, thinking about what it felt like.

“They allowed me to transport myself away from where I was, with the port in my chest and the bags of chemo going through me,” she said of Bernstein’s recorded prayers. “It gave me grounding.”

A few months after Thiemann’s treatment course, Bernstein shared some of her recordings with a friend as a birthday present. The friend connected Bernstein with the Lloyd Symington Foundation, a San Anselmo-based nonprofit that provides funding for cancer-related healing projects.

In October 2011, Bernstein received a $5,000 grant from the foundation — which she said was the first Jewish project the foundation had funded.

“When I started, I thought it would maybe be a few songs to download and a PDF with some riffs,” Bernstein said. “I never imagined I would write an entire book.”

As the project continued to expand, Bernstein applied for more funding from the foundation and received three grants totaling $13,000 over five years. Throughout the process, she worked with Sha’ar Zahav congregants on editing and layout and Bay Area musicians on recording.

She reached out to Italian painter Carlo Berté and asked if she could use a painting he had made of the archangel Rafael on the cover of her album because, she said, the first time she had seen it hanging in his living room, it had made her cry.

“Under the Wings of Rafa’el” will be available for purchase on Bernstein’s website  — www.sharonbernstein.com/under-the-wings-of-rafael.html — starting on Sept. 18 and will be celebrated with a release party that day at Sha’ar Zahav from 4 to 6 p.m.

“The biggest struggle in putting this together was figuring out how to make it accessible to everyone — no matter what kind of connection you have to Judaism or God,” Bernstein said. “I wrote it for everyone. I think playing is a very serious thing, and if anything, this booklet encourages you to play with the text and melody, and make it your own.”

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at hannah@jweekly.com.