Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody recently had the opportunity to hire a new part-time cantor, but opted instead to bring in an associate rabbi who could sing, daven, lead services, and provide pastoral care for congregants.
“I think it’s not good for cantors looking to go into the field just as a hazzan [cantor],” said Rabbi Richard Perlman of Ner Tamid, noting that many smaller congregations are struggling to afford even part-time cantors. “Rabbis picked up the guitar 15-20 years ago, and I think that hurt the traditional cantor. People don’t want to hear the cantor doing the traditional davening like we used to.”
On the North Shore, Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott and Temple Emanuel in Andover employ full-time, ordained cantors. Other synagogues retain part-time cantors with other jobs, including Temple Sinai in Marblehead. Others, like Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody and Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, have music directors who fulfill many of the roles of the hazzan, but are not ordained. Many congregations mix and match with rabbis, assistant rabbis, lay congregants, part-time cantorial soloists, and retired cantors taking turns davening, organizing bands and choirs, and tutoring b’nei and b’not mitzvah. Though the vast majority bring in cantors for the High Holidays and other special events, most report they have not had a full-time cantor in years.
There are two main reasons for the decline. The first is financial: full-time, ordained cantors, with many years of rigorous training under their belt, are expensive, often commanding six-figure salaries, according to Cantor Dr. Brian Mayer, associate professor of music and dean of Hebrew College School of Jewish Music. As many synagogues struggle to make ends meet, fewer and fewer decide they can afford full-time cantors.
“Unfortunately, I think there’s still the mindset that if you need to cut somebody, you should cut the cantor, which actually completely contradicts a passage in the Talmud that says if a community doesn’t have enough money to hire a cantor and a rabbi, then the person you’re supposed to pay for is a hazzan,” said Jessica Woolf, a cantorial student at Hebrew College.
The second reason is cultural. Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis professor of American Jewish History, argued that the culture of synagogues has shifted from listening to participating, which is less conducive to the traditional duties of a cantor.
“Instead of performance-oriented worship, there’s a desire for more participatory worship, and the havurah movement especially encourages that in the 1960s – a sense that, ‘Power to the people, we want to train ourselves to lead services, and we don’t want to be talked at, sung at, we want to be involved,” said Sarna. “That leads to a big decline in the cantorate.”
At the same time, Sarna recognized that the role of cantors has shifted and expanded to accommodate this new paradigm. Elana Rozenfeld, who was cantor at Shirat Hayam until last year and will take over in the fall as interim program director of the Hebrew College School of Jewish Music in Newton, said the contemporary cantorate has expanded far beyond singing.
“It’s different in every possible way from what I thought as a college student going into cantorial school,” said Rozenfeld. “We do a great deal of education of congregants from birth to death. We often have to take on the role of rabbi if the rabbi’s not available, or we share many rabbinic, pastoral roles – we visit people in the hospital, we officiate all sorts of lifecycle events. Often behind the scenes we are running the synagogue with the rabbi and executive director, so we have a hand in development.”
Rozenfeld pointed out that cantors also can direct choirs, bands, and teach at religious schools, and Hebrew College cantorial students receive a dual degree in education.
Even the style of singing has changed, reflecting the shift to participation rather than performance worship, which is perhaps why Hebrew College now requires its cantorial students to be able to play guitar.
“What we do is song-leading, rather than a soloist in the classic singing and watching sense,” said Alty Weinreb, Shirat Hayam’s current cantor. “We want things engaging and interactive.” Weinreb, who has been at Shirat Hayam since last summer, is an especially active cantor. He helps out with the temple band, teaches in the religious school, gives lessons to children and adults, and works hard to engage the congregation in a dynamic, moving way.
“We’re at a precipice, not just in the cantorate, but in the modern synagogue,” said Weinreb. “Jews are saying that they find services not relevant to their life. We need to change that.”
Cantor Idan Irelander of Temple Emanuel in Andover, feels that the cantor has a unique ability to move the congregation. “Music in general touches people in a way no one else can, and I think the cantor has the ability to bring congregants to a state of mind they’re looking for when attending services,” he said. “As my father used to say, ‘music is the compassion of humanity.’ One of my teachers told me that when congregants go to service, they want to feel like they’re back in their mother’s arms.”
Woolf feels that cantors are in fact uniquely skilled at leading participatory worship. “Getting a community to sing is a skill,” she said. “I see the role of the cantor as not just a leader in prayer, but they are the facilitator, especially in the modern world, where we’re going to be serving people who don’t have a regular prayer practice.”
Mayer, of Hebrew College, thinks that reports of a declining cantorate are overblown and a holdover from 10 years ago, when the recession cost many cantors their posts. He cited a report from the Cantors Assembly, an international association of Conservative cantors, stating that it cannot find enough qualified cantors to fill full-time pulpits. Openings are likely to increase in coming years, because according to the Cantors Assembly, over 100 full-time positions across the country are filled by cantors over 55.
“Every single one of our graduates have found meaningful work, and have had no trouble finding full-time positions,” said Mayer.
However, the full-time positions are increasingly the domain of large, wealthy congregations. Most of the full-time cantors in Greater Boston are found west of the city, in congregations such as Temple Emanuel in Newton and Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. Meanwhile south of Boston in Sharon, Jeff Klepper, a pioneer of inclusionary temple music, recently retired as full-time cantor at Temple Sinai and will be succeeded by his former student, Becky Khitrik, who was promoted from assistant cantor.
“[The cantor’s role] is to move their congregation and bring them closer to God, bring them closer to Judaism, to bring them in,” said Rozenfeld. “If they do that, however they do that, then I believe synagogues will always find a way to afford them.”