NEWTON CENTRE, MASSACHUSETTS — On a bright Monday morning, about 10 miles west of Boston, a group — mostly rabbis and cantors in training — sat in a circle at Hebrew College for morning tefillah.
They resembled the mix you’d expect at a pluralistic Jewish studies college. The prayer service was egalitarian, with all students sitting together, and they wore a range of religious garb.
Every morning at the college, the students try out different styles of prayer. Some mornings, that prayer is traditional, davening typical to some Conservative or Modern Orthodox shuls. Other mornings, that service might be Chasidic-inflected or be a prayer through movement session.
These tefillot may function as an exercise, preparing these clergy-in-training in general, and cantors specifically, for the changing world facing institutions like synagogues. These institutions find themselves competing against other spaces — like different groups organized around hobbies, interests or politics — as places for community building. To stay relevant, synagogues have to find deeper ways to tap into spirituality.
The clergy-in-training at Hebrew College can start each day by exploring these different paths to spirituality themselves.
On this particular morning, the second Monday of the school year, the students used tefillah to explore Lashon HaKodesh — literally the Holy Tongue, or Hebrew. Participants switched off between English and Hebrew throughout, based on what certain passages in the Gemara said have to be done in Hebrew and what could be done in a vernacular language.
“Davening every day is different,” said Matt Goldberg, a second-year student in the Rav-Hazzan program at Hebrew College. “Not just, oh maybe this one little melody, or maybe the leader has a different voice, but totally different. And what better way to figure out what I connect to than being exposed to many things? It was scary, and it’s scary every day, and it’s challenging and amazing.
“Sometimes, we’ll do a service in English or that uses all the feminine God language or is movement with our bodies or is outside, in the stairwell or whatever, something I’ve never done before. It’s amazing. It means something to me. It gets my spirit going, I guess. I get to figure out why, what is it about that prayer experience that is so meaningful.”
Goldberg is the only student in the Rav-Hazzan program, a relatively new option at Hebrew College that will allow him to graduate in just six years with ordinations as both a rabbi and a cantor.
He grew up in Vancouver, Canada, where he attended a Conservative synagogue and was involved in a Conservative youth group. Despite that, he attended a pluralistic rabbinical college because he wanted to explore a wider range of ways to practice Judaism.
He came to Hebrew College expecting to solely pursue the rabbinate, but he has always been a musical person, having played the piano and trumpet and played in bands. He would sometimes hear, when he started on the path to becoming a rabbi, that his musical background would add to his rabbinical service. In other words, he could serve the community as a “singing rabbi.”
But he wanted more than to just be a rabbi who could sing. So he embarked on the Rav-Hazzan program, one of the first students to do so. He concurrently takes both rabbinical and cantorial classes.
“Calling a cantor a person who can sing is true, but it ignores a lot more of a cantor’s education and training and experience and skills,” Goldberg said. “There’s singing, but there’s so much more learning of history and of music theory and of our traditions. There’s so much more to it. I wanted that.”
The Cantor in the Synagogue
Connecting to spirituality through music and prayer — that’s the role of the cantor in the synagogue, to guide congregants through that connection.
In Hebrew College’s Cantorial Ordination for Spiritual and Educational Leadership, students take classes on the history of Jewish music, B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, choral conducting, how holy texts can be grammatically broken down to determine their trope and more. They learn a range of Jewish prayers and songs, traditional and contemporary music. The program takes three years, with two eight-week intensive summers. (The rabbinical school is five years, with an optional year called Mekorot for students who need an additional year of preparation.)
Out in Jewish communities, cantors can often take on a variety of roles, said Cantor Elana Rozenfeld, interim director of the cantorial program at Hebrew College. In the past, they may have doubled as mohels or shochets. Today, it’s common for cantors to run religious schools.
At some synagogues, the cantor may even lead the congregation as the only clergy person.
But at the same time, while all synagogues have prayer leaders, not all synagogues employ cantors. A congregation may rely on a rabbi, volunteers from the community or a cantorial soloist — a musician without the cantorial ordination, who may be a synagogue employee.
Anyone with a good voice and knowledge of prayer can lead a service, Rozenfeld said, but an ordained cantor brings a special depth of knowledge. They can find the right style, tune or prayer that specifically connects a certain individual or community. They can lead children or adult choirs. Every congregation wants something different, and part of being a professional means having a wider breadth of knowledge to draw from.
“I was the connection between the community and Jewish culture in general,” Rozenfeld said, reflecting on her work in synagogues. “The connection between the community and Jewish texts was the rabbi. I focused on prayer, prayer text, and music.”
One way her professional knowledge has allowed her to provide a unique service is in hospitals, with elderly people.
In the last congregation she worked at, Rozenfeld was able to put her cantorial knowledge to good use — by comforting a dying man. While he lay on his deathbed, unable to talk or function in any way, Rozenfeld went to him and sang him one of his favorite songs — “Shalom Rav.”
And he burst out loudly, singing along.
“His body and his brain were shutting down, and they just got lit up by this song,” Rozenfeld recalled. “That’s the power of music, and when someone is professional, they should be and usually would be more flexible in that we know more things. Yes, I know that, but I could also sing a Yiddish song to somebody else.”
Nowadays, though, people are less interested in prayer, but that just “means that cantors need to be creative,” Rozenfeld said. “We need to love prayer and connect to prayer very deeply because we can’t teach people something they don’t know or have. We can’t give them something we don’t have. I teach that to the students a lot. We need to love it, and then we need to look at every single person and know how do I connect to that person, how do I connect that person to prayer, how do I connect this congregation to prayer.”
Professionalizing the Cantorate
The role of music and prayer in the Jewish tradition stretches back to the Torah. The Book of Exodus famously tells of how, when the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt, they celebrated with singing, tambourines and dancing. The Talmud mentions that Levites would sing and play instruments in the Temple.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century, the earliest iteration of cantors began to emerge. As prayer grew more important in ritual life, synagogues began designating congregants to pray on behalf of the community.
But another 1,000 years would pass before the modern cantorate appeared in the 18th century. According to My Jewish Learning, synagogues increasingly began to emulate their Christian counterparts, and that included the development of a canon of liturgy.
Today, it is mostly Reform and Conservative synagogues that employ cantors, especially at larger congregations. Orthodox synagogues generally do not employ full-time, professional cantors.
In 2008, during the Great Recession, synagogues struggled financially like everyone else. A number took a look at their clergy and felt like someone had to go. That someone was often the cantor.
“There was a real drop in congregation’s finances,” explained Cantor Lynn Torgove, head of the Department of Vocal Arts at Hebrew College. “They didn’t have the money to have multiple clergy, but that’s not true anymore, but perceptions take a long time to catch up with reality.”
Synagogues that haven’t had cantors for this reason now want them again, Torgove said. In the Conservative movement, for example, cantors are retiring, and synagogues are struggling to replace them. Cantorial students generally get multiple job offers upon graduating, Torgove noted.
But cantors are still often undervalued. Congregants frequently see them as playing sidekick to rabbis.
It’s a point of frustration to Jessica Woolf, a third-year cantorial student.
“It’s not that one person knows more or is better than the other,” she said. “We just have different specialties. It’s like, you wouldn’t go to a neurosurgeon when you have a toothache. A neurologist and a dentist are both doctors. They just have different specialties, and one isn’t better or more of a doctor than the other.”
Woolf grew up in a secular home in Portland, Oregon. She didn’t have a Jewish education or a Bat Mitzvah as part of her upbringing. When she went off to Oberlin College to study music, she got involved in Hillel. She eventually had a Bat Mitzvah when she was 21.
Through her experience at Hillel, as well as through her aunt, who is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Judaism became a larger part of her life. After college, Woolf worked in the Jewish community, as a religious school administrator and with youth organizations.
She eventually decided to pursue her cantorial ordination. She can see herself working at a mid-sized synagogue and running a religious school after graduation.
“Rabbis don’t just give sermons,” Woolf said. “Today, rabbis are out there protesting. We all do pastoral work. The role of clergy in general is changing because we’re in a changing role. Judaism adapts. Judaism needs to adapt, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The Power of Music
Mondays at Hebrew College end with Kol Arev rehearsal. Cantorial students are required to be a part of the Hebrew College chamber choir, but rabbinical students, faculty and others can audition and join as well.
Here, the power of music to connect to spirituality is on full display. Voices soar and harmonize.
“Music is the gateway to prayer,” Woolf said. “The words on the page, not that many people really understand the Hebrew on the page, and the kinds of congregations that I’ve served in, we do a little bit of English here and there, but for the most part, we sing in Hebrew. That in itself is a connection to Judaism.”
In an era of increased anxiety over synagogue membership, music — and, by extension, cantors — may be able to play an important role.
Rabbi Dan Judson, dean of the rabbinical school, has researched the demographic changes that have led to the struggles that some synagogues are facing in terms of membership. Some of that, he said, comes from the urbanization of the Jewish community — suburban synagogues are, in particular, struggling as Jewish communities move from the suburbs to the city.
Millennials have low membership rates, which he attributes both to their delay in marrying and starting families, as well as their weariness of institutions.
There are also more options now than just the synagogue for people to find community, he said. And all places of worship, not just synagogues, are finding their congregants are becoming more politically homogeneous. People seem to want to pray along others that vote like them.
Despite the challenging environment, there are success stories.
“If I had to look at synagogues that are successful … one of the key elements of their success is music,” Judson said. “We are clearly moving away from an operatic and disengaged sense of Judaism, where people listen to a cantor sing beautifully. We have moved away from that. There are moments still where that’s called for but, by and large, people are looking for music that engages them, engages their soul and is uplifting or compelling.
“Every synagogue that’s doing well has music that is alive and compelling,” he continued. “And it’s all kind of participatory. The ones that are doing it really well, it’s participatory. It’s also sophisticated. It’s serious, but it’s also playful. It’s all of these things.”
Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld has noticed the same trend. Synagogues that are doing well now take relationships seriously and have real substance. Music and prayer are central to that, she said.
“People want to be at synagogue and feel like there’s something real happening,” said Anisfeld, who received her ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Music, Anisfeld speculated, exists at the place where the physical meets the spiritual, giving it a certain power.
“Neshima is breath is Hebrew, and neshama is also soul,” she said. “It’s the same Hebrew root for breath and soul, so there’s something about the physicality of singing, and yet, it’s also touching, this very spiritual, emotional place within us. Something about that is part of the mystery and the magic of what is happening there. … Ideology sort of falls away. When you’re singing together, for the moment, you’re not arguing about what you mean by the words. You’re singing.”
This article was made possible by a grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The fund was established by the family of the late Irving Felgoise, a printer, in honor of his longtime association with the newspaper field and the Jewish Federation. The Memorial Fund is administered by the Jewish Federation Endowments Corp.
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