Cantors Changing Tune To Stay Relevant


Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Md., is a classic suburban Conservative synagogue, boasting a membership of 1,100 households and such varied programming as a Yiddish film festival, tallit-making workshops and an adult education institute. A sprawling building, newly enlarged, contains all this bustling activity.

Large congregations like Beth El offer much, yet they sometimes suffer from a reputation for lackluster services that contrasts with their crowded preschools and the abundant activities on offer.

And while Beth El’s cantor, Matthew Klein, says that the synagogue has always had “a big singing crowd,” he also says he’s trying to make services more participatory, and passionate. Congregant Robert Judson, a risk management consultant, says Cantor Klein is having an impact.

“Something is changing,” said Judson, a 56-year-old risk management consultant and musician who himself considered being a cantor in his youth. “All of a sudden, it feels like the formula for making the service accessible is right there. People can find a connection through what Matt’s doing.”

In both the Conservative and the Reform movements, and in seminaries and synagogues unaffiliated with any movement, the role of the cantor is evolving rapidly. Many, like Judson, say this is a good thing, but not everybody welcomes the changes.

“I think everyone is trying to figure out the future of the cantorate,” said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial school in Yonkers, just north of the Bronx.

Congregations — like Beth El — are increasingly shifting away from the “frontal” style in which the cantor leads the congregation like a conductor and toward communal singing, Prouser said.

“Once upon a time, you couldn’t ask a cantor to lift a chair to help set up,” said Yosef Goldman, 34, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary who also spent two years there as a full-time cantorial student and is earning a master’s degree in sacred music. “Back then, cantors were rock stars.”

Today, the training at JTS is increasingly focused on how cantors can inspire a congregation to sing together, said Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School there. For example, Abramson brings in leaders of the independent minyan movement as guest teachers.

“What the independent minyan movement has hit on is the value of the group, how collective participation can really inspire in a way that a frontal experience might not be able to,” Cantor Abramson said.

She is also requiring JTS’ cantorial students to learn at least basic guitar-playing skills: “A guitar just says, ‘Sing with me.’ You don’t have to be a great guitarist.”

Time was, Conservative cantors focused on voice training and the scholarly study of classical nusach, the melodies characteristic of various Jewish communities, from Yemen to Poland. The Reform movement was known for its “song leader” tradition most famously associated with singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, in which the service’s leader would use a guitar to inspire the entire group to sing.

Indeed, most Conservative rabbis used to forbid musical instruments during services for fear that their use would cause congregants to break the laws against carrying or fixing things during Shabbat or major Jewish holidays, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards. They might, for example, carry the instruments to synagogue or fix a broken guitar string.

But that’s changing as more Conservative congregations come to prefer a song-leader-style cantor. So many Conservative congregations are moving in that direction that Rabbi Dorff recently submitted to the committee a responsa, or legal opinion, providing guidelines on the use of musical instruments on holidays, because it’s becoming more common.

“Young people have their iPods … and earphones in their ears 24-7,” Dorfff said. “Rabbis are responding to the aesthetic of their younger members.”

The opinion didn’t receive the six of 25 votes necessary to pass it because many Conservative movement leaders still don’t approve of using musical instruments on Shabbat or holidays. Nonetheless, Rabbi Dorff predicted, the majority of Conservative synagogues will be doing so within 30 years. In the meantime, individual rabbis will simply continue setting their own rules for their congregations without official input from the movement's leadership.

Just as some rabbis object to the musical changes in Conservative synagogues, so do some congregants, said Joey Wiesenberg, a musician and musical director at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue. He’s also one of the leaders of the independent minyan movement who's taught at JTS. Not everybody wants a more expressive service, he said.

“No matter how much some people want something, there’s always people who don’t,” he said. “And a lot is learned from them. Some people want their private space … they might appreciate a lack of intensity. They have intense lives, so it’s nice to go and sit somewhere quiet.”

Another challenge Wiesenberg and Cantor Klein face is congregants who may want to sing, but lack the Hebrew skills to do so. Such worshippers might have been more comfortable with a traditional cantor who didn't try to generate a collective response.

Both use niggunim, or wordless melodies, to facilitate the participation of those who have less liturgical literacy.

“The niggun is essential,” Wiesenberg said. “It’s the leveling agent.”
And they both believe congregants of all ages who want to learn will do so.

“We have a learner’s service,” Klein said. “People are hungry to find out if God is different from what they learned about when they were 12.”

The Conservative movement is itself still learning from its member congregations what they want in a cantor: JTS hired a consulting firm to help re-envision its program after it decided in 2010 to restructure it and eliminate the dean’s position, said Cantor Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the movement’s Cantors Assembly, which places cantors in congregations.

Cantor Stein didn’t divulge any details of the consultants’ findings so far, lest they influence the responses to future surveys or focus groups.
The announcement to eliminate its dean was a low point for the cantorial program’s students, but the school has moved on, said Goldman, the JTS rabbinical student who is getting a degree from the cantorial school as well.

“There isn’t the sense anymore that they’re just waiting for the school to die,” he said. “If there weren’t these economic challenges, it would be an optimistic time. Now there is the fear of not getting a job.”

As first the recession and then a soft economy has squeezed synagogue budgets, many have had to cut back on hiring, which has forced cantors to broaden their job descriptions.

It has also discouraged some aspiring cantors. Enrollment at the cantorial programs in both the Conservative and Reform movements has dropped since 2008; from 38 to 20 students at JTS and from 43 to 36 students at the Reform movement’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

“For years when I was thinking of becoming a cantor, people said, ‘You would be great, and by the way, there are many more jobs than there are cantors,’” said Jeffrey Warschauer, 52, an established musician who plans to freelance as a cantor after he finishes the program at JTS. “That has changed. There are very wonderful cantors who are out of work.”

At JTS, Cantor Abramson is encouraging her students to pursue qualifications beyond the musical: two are serving as military chaplains, two will leave with degrees from both the cantorial and the education schools, and one will receive a certificate in pastoral education in addition to her cantorial degree.

“My overarching goal is to broaden the career path for cantors,” Cantor Abramson said.

In the Reform movement, faculty, students and cantors in the field all describe their role as “co-clergy” with rabbis. The April announcement that Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion would begin to ordain its cantors, as it does rabbis, instead of “investing” them, was a recognition of cantors’ expanded roles, they say.

Under Cantor Bruce Ruben, the director of the Debbie Friedman School, HUC-JIR has added to its requirements for cantorial students, who now complete a five-year program, as rabbinical students do. Rabbinical students still astudy more Jewish text than cantors, Ruben said, but more such training is required of cantors now.

The Academy for Jewish Religion already ordains its cantors; JTS probably will eventually do so as well, Cantor Abramson said.

“The role of the cantor is becoming much more well-rounded,” said Amanda Kleinman, 25, a student at the Debbie Friedman School. “It involves pastoral work, a lot of education, things that people might not have thought are part of the cantor’s job description.”

This evolution of the cantor’s role has generated some tensions within the clergy.

Cantors who fail to grow along with their field may find themselves out of a job before they are ready to retire, Abramson said.

“Some older colleagues are living in the past,” she said. “Unless someone is willing to retool, and change and learn, you can’t make them change. It’s painful and difficult.”

Also, as the economy shrinks synagogue staffs and cantors learn more of what used to be the province of rabbis, some wonder whether the two might start to compete with each other.

Reform Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan laid out this possibility in an opinion piece for JTA after his movement decided to ordain cantors.

“I would argue that they don’t need rabbis if a cantor can do everything rabbis can do,” he told The Jewish Week. “They can sing and run the music. With the emphasis on spirituality, you don’t need a great scholar … I would see the cantor as more important to the future of American Judaism. I hate to say it, but cantors can make people feel good.”; @thesimplechild