Sarah Lipsett-Allison was a classically trained singer with the “voice of an angel,” in the words of her admirers.
So it was no surprise that she found success as both a performer and voice teacher.
But in her 40s, she gave up that career for an even more rarefied stage — as part of a small sisterhood of female cantors in Minnesota’s Jewish community.
Lipsett-Allison, the musical leader at Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, died of cancer May 30 at age 60.
“I had the best position in the sanctuary because I got to stand right next to her for 19 years,” said Rabbi Emeritus Norman Cohen. “I got to hear her music in my ear. I still do.”
As a girl growing up in California, Lipsett-Allison had no role models for her future career. “She always had a beautiful voice,” said her sister, Judi Lipsett. But for most of history, only men had served as cantors, the specially trained clergy who lead the musical side of Jewish prayer services. That didn’t change until 1975, when the first women were inducted into the profession.
At first, Lipsett-Allison dreamed of becoming a dancer, not a singer. But in college, she switched her major to music and later earned a master’s degree in vocal performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in New York.
After moving to Minnesota 30 years ago with her husband, Brent Allison, a University of Minnesota librarian, she performed with the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Chorale, among other groups, and built a following as a voice teacher.
She discovered her love of Jewish music when she met Rabbi Stacy Offner, whose daughter was one of her vocal students. Offner, the founding rabbi of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis, quickly recruited Lipsett-Allison to sing at her services. “We were a small fledgling synagogue, we didn’t have a cantor,” Offner recalled.
Lipsett-Allison took on the role as a volunteer and found her true calling.
“She could hit the notes that caused the heavens to open, and would cause a soul to burst,” said Offner.
In 1997, Bet Shalom offered Lipsett-Allison a job as cantorial soloist. She took to it so enthusiastically, says Cohen, that she decided to go back to school — an intensive five-year program through Hebrew Union College — to be ordained as a cantor.
“She wanted to make it kosher,” he said. “She wanted to have that significant place in Jewish life.”
In addition to helping the rabbis lead religious services, she oversaw the synagogue’s music program and choir and worked with students to prepare them for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.
“I loved working with her,” said Cohen. “She made me a better rabbi. She made me a better singer, by the way.”
Offner, who is now a rabbi in Connecticut, said she can still picture Lipsett-Allison at her Minneapolis synagogue, “tapping the lectern while she’s leading the singing, and her smile. She had an opera-quality voice, and most opera singers want you to listen. And she wanted you to participate.”
Cohen agrees. Even now, he said, “I feel certain that her voice is echoing in our sanctuary.”
In addition to her sister and husband, she is survived by her son, Ethan Allison; a brother, Michael Lipsett, and mother-in-law Helen Allison. Funeral services have been held.