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Despite Traditionalist Defection, Cantors Group Admits Women Members

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After three years of often divisive debate and the formation of a splinter group of cantors unhappy with what it sees as the group’s liberal bent, the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly inducted its first women members this month.

Fourteen women were welcomed into the professional organization at its 44th annual convention by Cantor Samuel Rosenbaum, the group’s executive vice president, who said in his address, “We finally took courage into our own hands and decided to admit qualified women.”

“We could no longer have a part in the duplicity of recruiting women to study for the cantorate, encouraging them in their studies, providing them with scholarship assistance, helping them with repertoire and advice, and then admit the men and bar the door to the women,” he said.

The convention was held May 5 to 9 in Los Angeles. Nineteen male cantors also were inducted into the assembly.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has been awarding the diploma of chazzan to women since 1987, two years after it ordained its first woman rabbi. And the Reform movement has ordained women cantors since 1975.

But the Orthodox do not permit women to serve as cantors or rabbis.

A splinter group of “traditional” Conservative cantors was started at the initiative of four Toronto cantors, who found themselves at odds with the direction the Cantors Assembly and the entire Conservative movement has been taking.

‘MOVING DRAMATICALLY TO THE LEFT’

The decision of the Cantors Assembly to admit women brought the more traditional cantors’ dissatisfaction to a head, according to Cantor A. Eliezer Kirshblum, one of the leaders of the new group, which has adopted the working name of the International Federation of Traditional Cantors.

But “there were other disenchantments over the years,” he said, citing the “tendency of the organization to move dramatically to the left.”

“Many of their legal decisions reflect a loose, liberal definition that puts them more closely aligned to the Reform movement than what was intended by founders of the Conservative movement,” he asserted.

“Many of us think there will be an amalgamation” of the Conservative and Reform cantors groups at some point in the future.

The new group had planned its first convention for early May, but because the dates conflicted with the Cantors Assembly gathering, and one of the more traditional cantors was to speak at the assembly gathering, the new organization’s meeting was postponed until Oct. 13. It is scheduled to take place in Toronto.

Seventy five cantors have registered to attend the first convention, according to Kirshblum, and he expects another 50 to sign up now that the date has been postponed.

Any attempts by the newly elected Cantors Assembly president, Cantor Nathan Lam of Los Angeles, to accommodate the more traditional rabbis “will fail,” Kirshblum said. “You can’t be treife and kosher at the same time,” he said.

The new organization plans to offer its members the same services offered by the Cantors Assembly: seminars, placement assistance, pension arrangements and insurance benefits.

It may be able to accomplish that through affiliation with the Union For Traditional Judaism, the Mt. Vernon, N.Y.-based rabbinic and educational organization which split off from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1984 and founded its own seminary last year.

70 OR 80 CANTORS HAVE JOINED

Some 70 or 80 cantors are members of the union at present, according to Rabbi Ronald Price, its executive vice president. They obtain benefits through the union’s Cantorial Services Committee, co-chaired by Toronto’s Cantor Kirshblum.

Informal discussions between the union and the nascent cantors group have already taken place, though no official alliance has been formed.

Still, the union’s Cantorial Services Committee is “happy to provide them with services immediately,” Price said.

Though the schism between liberal and more traditional elements within Conservative Jewry is not new, the splintering of the cantors group “may be the final step in dividing” the Conservative movement, said Price.

Two members of the 450-member Cantors Assembly resigned over the decision to admit women, and Kirshblum, who was on the group’s executive committee but resigned the post. For the moment, however, he remains a member of the assembly.

About the development of the alternative group, Rosenbaum of the Cantors Assembly would only say: “Our organization covers the gamut from liberal, mainline to conservative, and so far, there’s been room for everybody.”

While the divisive issue of admitting women has been settled, participation in the professional organization is just beginning for the 14 women who were inducted.

They received a gracious and “very menschlik” reception at the convention, according to Cantor Marla Rosenfeld Barugel of Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson, N.J.

‘CANNOT LONG MASQUERADE AS MEN’

Membership in the assembly gives the newly admitted cantors “a feeling of professional support, a group in which to share ideas,” she said.

The assembly’s effort to create a welcoming environment for the women at the convention, by asking them to lead services, read Torah, and sing during workshops, was appreciated by the new cantors, Rosenfeld Barugel said, who viewed it as “a statement that ‘We’re trying to make up for all of these years.’ “

The assembly is also commissioning the first Conservative cantorial music for soprano and alto voices, rather than simply requiring the women to make do with music written for male voices and transposed into their range.

“The women cannot long exist trying to masquerade as men,” acknowledged the assembly’s Rosenbaum, who advocated admitting women to the organization.

“Our bylaws permitted women all the time, but we were too blind to see it,” he said of the three years of debate within the organization’s membership before a legal review of the bylaws revealed that women were not barred.

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