Cantors Assembly Leadership Decides to Admit Women to Professional Body

The executive council of the Cantors Assembly has decided to admit qualified women to the professional association of Conservative cantors, ending a battle that began three years ago when the Jewish Theological Seminary began conferring cantorial degrees on women.

The move, which puts the assembly in line with the egalitarian philosophy espoused by the seminary, comes after the entire membership of the assembly failed to pass the issue by a two-thirds majority vote this spring, for the third year in a row.

The executive council, which met Aug. 30, passed the motion by a vote of 29-1, with two members abstaining, according to Cantor Samuel Rosenbaum, the assembly’s executive vice president. The vote was not made public for two weeks, be said, in order to notify the assembly’s members first.

The sole dissenting member on the council, Cantor A. Eliezer Kirshblum, resigned in protest immediately after the vote was taken. Another cantor from the 400-member assembly has resigned as a result of the decision, and more are believed to be considering the same response.

The motion to admit women had won the votes of a simple majority of the assembly’s membership during the last two annual conventions, held each May. At the last convention, the vote was 100-68, 12 votes short of the two-thirds majority required by the assembly’s constitution to approve an amendment, said Rosenbaum.

But Rosenbaum pointed out that the organization’s bylaws require that candidates be admitted on the basis of their qualifications and do not mention gender as a requirement.

For that reason, the executive council decided that a constitutional amendment was unnecessary and that the issue could be decided by the 32-member leadership body.

TRADITIONALISTS THREATEN SPLIT

Rosenbaum said that some of the women who had graduated from the JTS Cantors Institute, but had not been admitted to the assembly, had been considering bringing a lawsuit against the professional association, charging unlawful discrimination.

He said the assembly’s legal counsel, after reviewing the bylaws and constitution, recommended that women be admitted to the organization.

Cantor Kirshblum of Toronto’s Adath Israel Synagogue, who also resigned his position as head of the Ontario region of the assembly, said Monday that he was “outraged at the way the board, made up of liberal-bent cantors, redefined the constitution.

“Although I’m against women coming into the assembly for halachic reasons, I resigned because the executive overturned, in an undemocratic manner, what has happened for three years,” he said in a telephone interview.

“I object to the procedure. The executive railroaded something through and decided to override the membership,” he charged.

Kirshblum warned that the traditionalist members of the Cantors Assembly may be headed for a split with the rest of the organization.

“Next May’s convention is in jeopardy,” he said. “We will be contacting the membership-at-large to offer alternatives for people who cannot live with this methodology.”

He would not be more specific, or detail the alternatives that he is considering.

WOMEN CANTORS ELATED

Cantor Baruch Cohon of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Calif., submitted his resignation to the assembly a week after the vote was taken.

“Clearly, the executive committee is scrapping the halachic definition of a cantor,” Cohon said in his letter of resignation.

“Bringing this issue up at cantorial conventions destroyed much of the camaraderie there for the last three years,” he added in a phone interview from Beverly Hills.

The eight women who have graduated from the JTS Cantors Institute since it started conferring degrees on women in 1987 have already applied for admission to the assembly, according to Rosenbaum.

While all eight have reportedly found jobs with congregations without the aid of the assembly’s professional placement service, they say they are looking forward to the other benefits that membership includes, like medical and disability insurance.

“I am delighted and much relieved that we can take our place in the assembly with our male colleagues,” said Cantor Toby Lou Hayman of Temple Emanu-El in Wichita, Kan.

“Now we can focus on the job that we’ve been trained to do, transmitting our ancient and very beautiful musical heritage to children and adults, rather than on a difficult political situation,” she said.

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