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Conservative cantors struggle as demand declines

By Sue Fishkoff

September 25th, 2008

Reform cantors Amy Daniels, Regina Lambert-Hayut and Tracey Scher perform at Kehillat Mevasseret Zion near Jerusalem in July 2006. Photo by Debra I. Danner.

Reform cantors Amy Daniels, Regina Lambert-Hayut and Tracey Scher perform at Kehillat Mevasseret Zion near Jerusalem in July 2006. Photo by Debra I. Danner.

Kerhonksen, N.Y. (JTA) — Two years ago, Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs, Calif., replaced its full-time cantor with a part-timer.

Then the part-timer left, and the Conservative synagogue replaced him with a lay soloist who was a member of the congregation.

“Our budget has shrunk, our membership has shrunk and the nature of the cantorate has changed,” said Lenny Pepper, executive director of the shul, where membership has fallen by half in the past 10 years, to 330 members.

Short on cash, and with worshipers happier to sing along with a guitar-playing lay leader than listen to traditional nusach (cantorial chanting), Temple Isaiah decided to do without a professional.

“Temples all over the country are facing the same problem,” Pepper said. “In these tough times, everybody’s trying to figure out how we’re going to survive.”

In today’s economy, cantors are finding it difficult to find work. That’s especially true in the Conservative movement, where membership is dwindling and synagogues across the U.S. are downsizing.

Cash-strapped congregations forced to choose almost always hire a rabbi over a cantor.

The Reform movement hasn’t experienced the same job crunch as the Conservatives.

Barbara Ostfeld, the head of the American Conference of Cantors, said 44 Reform congregations were looking for cantors in the past year — a number that has held steady for six or seven years. Most offer full-time positions.

In Orthodoxy, the use of cantors long has been in decline. (See accompanying story.) Full-time cantorial positions are rare, as most congregations have a surfeit of laymen to lead services.

Picky congregations

The job crisis in the Conservative movement was a major topic of discussion at the national convention of the movement’s Cantors Assembly this summer in upstate New York.

“There are more cantors looking than congregations hiring,” said Robert Scherr, the placement director for the Cantors Assembly, who places about 20 cantors per year among the movement’s 760 affiliated synagogues.

In June, eight students graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H. L. Miller Cantorial School. For the first time, two have not found jobs, said the school’s dean, Henry Rosenblum.

Scherr cites many reasons for the change. Among them are cantors with full-time jobs are retiring later, and large congregations that are shrinking cannot afford to replace departing cantors.

Another reason, he said: Some congregations in a financial position to hire a second clergy member choose an assistant rabbi over a cantor because, well, anyone can sing.

With supply outpacing demand, congregations are picky. “Everybody wants someone 30 years old with 20 years’ experience,” Scherr said.

The Cantors Assembly is fighting the trend. Recently it began asking Conservative congregations looking to hire a second rabbi to consider a cantor instead.

The sell is to have cantors do more than sing. The assembly argues that cantors can lead a congregation’s religious school instead of an assistant rabbi, and usually are paid less.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative rabbis, is giving the move a diplomatic nod.

“I don’t have a problem with it," said Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, who heads the RA’s placement division. "The Cantors Assembly should advocate for their people. I think synagogues should have cantors. A rabbi and a cantor is a good thing.”

Additional skills

The key is for cantors to expand their marketability by increasing their job skills. Cantors in all the liberal movements are expected to do more than lead services and train bar/bat mitzvah students.

More often they must teach adult education classes, train conversion candidates, perform pastoral duties, run summer camps and work in administration.

“The cantor-slash has become the reality, whether it’s the cantor/music director, the cantor/religious school director — whatever,” Rosenblum said. “It’s the hybrid, the cantor who is strong in synagogue skills, who can read Torah and teach others to read Torah, that will make the best contributor.”

Cantorial students are aware of these changes, and many welcome them.

“I have enough tools in my skill set,” said Ellen Arad, a fourth-year student at the Miller school who considers herself primarily a teacher. “Part of re-envisioning the cantorate means there are other things you can do besides pulpit work.”

To meet these new needs, the Miller school is overhauling its curriculum for the first time in 50 years. The changes are still being considered, but will include greater emphasis on a wider range of professional skills.

Some cantorial schools already have made the shift. At the transdenominational Hebrew College in Boston, cantorial students also are trained as educators, said Scott Sokol, director of the college’s cantor-educator program.

“Most cantors are Jewish educators anyway, but they play the role more from instinct than by training,” he said.

The Reform movement, too, faces increased congregational expectations. The School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion has expanded its professional development courses to include training in pastoral counseling and adult education.

And because Reform congregations often expect cantors to organize and lead bands, this fall the school will offer an elective in arranging and orchestration.

Even more than Conservative congregations, Reform synagogues want their cantors to sing tunes the members, too, can belt out.

Of the 50 reports Ostfeld received this summer from search committees at Reform congregations, 85 percent said encouraging congregants to participate was “very important” in their decision to hire a particular cantor. The only factor listed as more important was “warmth and approachability.”

Missing mystery

Conservative and Reform cantorial school administrators say the popularity of sing-along prayer services does not mean their schools will teach less nusach, only that they are expanding their curricula to include a wider range of styles.

Last year HUC hired popular singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman to teach on its cantorial faculty — a move widely interpreted as the stamp of professional approval for Friedman’s style of sing-along worship. Friedman’s first year “worked out beautifully,” said Bruce Ruben, the director of the cantorial school.

Yet, Ruben insisted, the traditional approach is still important.

“The style today emphasizes intimacy, personal involvement, ‘my’ experience in the prayer service,” Ruben said. “There’s a whole other element in worship — the awe, the sense of mystery — that is completely missing. Clapping along isn’t all that Jewish music is about.”

Even in a tight job market, the best cantors continue to get jobs, movement leaders say.

Asa Fradkin, who graduated from the Miller school in 2007 and was hired as the cantor at Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Conn., said all the well-qualified candidates in the class ahead of him found jobs.

There's “still room in the synagogues for highly trained, professional cantors,” he said.

Rosenblum says a professional brings something beyond just knowing how to sing.

“When a layperson leads the service, they’re thinking: ‘What are the tunes to sing here?’ The davening falls by the wayside," he said. "The professional takes both into consideration.”

Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco, hired its first full-time cantor last October.

Alex Ingersoll, a co-chair of the search committee, said some people wanted an assistant rabbi, as the congregation had a group of community leaders with musical training who were adept at leading services.

“There was some resistance,” Ingersoll said. “People asked, ‘Does this mean we won’t be on the bimah? Is this a statement that we are not good enough?’”

The cantor eventually began teaching cantorial music to the community leaders and introducing them to her repertoire of Sephardic melodies.

“She brings an extraordinary ruach [spirit] and joy to the service that is rubbing off on other service leaders,” Ingersoll said. “There’s a lot more attention to the prayers. It’s not just, ‘Now we turn to page this or that.’”

That’s what the right cantor can bring to a congregation, Rosenblum said.

“We are not just musical adornment,” he said. “We are the vehicle that can help people access the spiritual in their lives.”