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She sings her way to a vocation

Claire Enfinger, 28, has an instant conversation-stopper when friends from her high school days (Dunedin High Class of '82) and college days (Florida State '86) ask her what she's doing now.

"I'm studying to be a rabbi," she says. She actually is studying to be a cantor, a singer of liturgical solos in a synagogue who leads the congregation in prayer. But she says rabbi at first because many people don't know what a cantor is.

Then she explains that a cantor is sort of like a singing rabbi, and she's sure some of her friends equate that with a flying nun.

But that's okay because Claire is having the time of her life, especially because the first two years of her studies are in Jerusalem.

After several years of trying to figure out what she really wanted to do with her life _ rejecting careers in business, education and law _ she now feels strongly that "this is my purpose in life, to do what I'm doing, to do it the best way I know how."

Claire, the daughter of Barbara and Jay Enfinger of Palm Harbor, certainly isn't a newcomer to the world of music. She studied piano from age 5 to 18. She was on stage as a 9-year-old Brigitta in The Sound of Music, one of those Ray Markett-led musical productions.

"I was the third one (of the Von Trapp children) with the big mouth," she said. Her friend Lari White, now a country music singer, played the next one down in that show.

Claire also was active in Markett's choirs during her four years at Dunedin High. She performed with the Players of Pinellas, a group that raised money for the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens, where her older brother, Mark, is a client. And one summer she was the pianist for the Royalty Theatre.

Although majoring in finance, not music, at FSU, she continued her voice lessons and performed with the university's Jazz Ensemble.

At that point in her life she wanted to keep music as an avocation, because "it made me happy," not as a vocation.

But that began to change in the summer of 1991 when the education director at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor asked Claire if she could work with the children in putting on a family service. "I loved it!" she said. "I loved working with the kids!"

A year later, in June 1992, she began studying for a master's degree in sacred music at Hebrew Union College. Although based in New York, the college always sends its freshman class (rabbinical, music and education majors) to Jerusalem for a year. And Claire has opted to return there for a second year in October.

The purpose of spending at least a year there, she said, is to "foster a strong connection with Israel" among these future Jewish leaders, something they can "bring back and pass on."

They don't live in a "cloistered environment" over there, Claire said. They must find their own apartments in the city, dealing with landlords, grocers and others even if their Hebrew isn't very good.

They also must do community service. Claire taught English and Hebrew to immigrant children from Ethiopia. The cantorial students also sing for money on the streets of Jerusalem every Friday morning, and then donate it to charity.

Claire will be the cantorial soloist (she's not allowed to call herself a cantor yet) at Clearwater's Temple B'nai Israel on July 30 and Aug. 6. In September she will participate in High Holy Days services at a synagogue in Mobile, Ala., and then it will be back to Jerusalem.

Being a cantor, Claire said, "is the first thing I can see myself doing 40 years from now. After a year of study, I still feel that way."