Disaffected Cantors Forming New Group for Traditionalists

Cantors unhappy with the liberal trend in the Conservative movement and a shift to the right in the Orthodox community have decided to establish a professional organization they hope will meet their needs better than the existing Orthodox and Conservative associations.

A group of the disaffected cantors met in Toronto during the last week of October and voted 99-3 to create the International Federation of Traditional Cantors.

It is intended to meet the needs of right-wing Conservative, left-wing Orthodox and non-aligned cantors who are committed to halacha, or traditional Jewish law, but are feeling squeezed out of the various movements.

One of the group’s founders, Cantor A. Eliezer Kirshblum of Toronto, is a former executive committee member of the Cantors Assembly who was upset with the Conservative group’s decision earlier this year to admit women who receive cantorial degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

But while that decision for Kirshblum was the final move beyond an acceptable level of halachic flexibility, he believes a problematic leftward trend began in the Conservative movement long beforehand.

“There’s a disenchantment, to put it mildly, within the Conservative movement about the direction of the seminary within the last decade. They’re getting closer and closer aligned to Reform,” he said.

“Many of us are becoming isolated within the movement because we don’t have a place anymore,” he said.

Kirshblum said that at the same time, there is “a move to the right within the Orthodox world. And in the Orthodox camp, very few synagogues are accepting full-time cantors, so many Orthodox cantors have to go into Conservative synagogues.”

The turnout of 102 cantors at the Toronto meeting proves that there are a lot of cantors whose needs are not being met by the Conservative and Orthodox professional associations, he said.

CONVENTION WAS A ‘HUGE SUCCESS’

The vote to form the federation followed a two-hour discussion in which leaders from all of the cantorial organizations present participated, said Kirshblum. He said the three dissenting votes came from officers of the Cantors Assembly.

Kirshblum expects that at least 200 cantors will want to join the new organization once it gets off the ground. That would make it substantially larger than the 128-member Orthodox Cantorial Council of America, which is affiliated with Yeshiva University, and half the size of the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly.

In addition to strong support from American and Canadian cantors, there is “tremendous response” from England and from Israel, he said. “This convention was a huge success in every respect.”

The relationship of the new federation to other cantorial organizations and to the Union for Traditional Judaism has yet to be determined.

The union is a rabbinic and educational organization based in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., that split off from the Conservative movement in 1984, following the Jewish Theological Seminary’s decision to ordain women rabbis. It established its own seminary in 1990 and now has 8,000 member families.

While there is not yet an official link between the union and the new cantorial federation, “by nature we have an association, and an informal relationship already exists,” said Rabbi Ronald Price, the union’s executive vice president.

Kirshblum co-chairs the union’s Cantorial Services Committee.

‘NOT RIGHT ENOUGH FOR US’

One of the reasons that no formal relationship has been created is because “among the Orthodox, there is still suspicion” of the union, “because its roots are in the Jewish Theological Seminary” of the Conservative movement, Kirshblum said.

And according to Cantor Bernard Beer, executive director of the Orthodox cantorial association, exactly what form the new federation will take remains to be seen.

It might become an umbrella organization, he said, and encompass Cantorial Council of America members, “defectors” from the Cantors Assembly and cantors from Toronto and Montreal who have their own local associations.

In that case, Beer said, members of the federation would already have to belong to one of the constituent associations.

Beer said serious religious problems may lie ahead if the new federation wants to include cantors who serve a wide range of congregations.

Cantors “may be too right for the Cantors Assembly, but not right enough for us,” he said. “We have certain standards, and while a cantor could be very Orthodox himself, if he serves a left-wing, egalitarian Conservative congregation, we may not accept it.”

Three or four Conservative cantors have resigned from the Cantors Assembly, according to Cantor Samuel Rosenbaum, the body’s executive vice president. But Conservative cantors will be free to maintain membership in both organizations, he said.

No further decisions on the form, constitution and associations of the International Federation of Traditional Cantors are expected to be made before next spring.

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