Cantor Turns Rabbi to Save Synagogue

Cantor Mark Goodman was conducting prayers for Valley Beth Israel — an ailing Conservative congregation that couldn’t afford a rabbi — when he decided that he could make things better.

Goodman, 43, approached the board of the Sun Valley congregation with a proposition. He told them that if they sponsored him to study in rabbinical school, he would fulfill both clergy positions in the synagogue and commit to a long-term contract with them.

Since then, with Goodman studying in rabbinical school part time at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a nondenominational rabbinical college, and focusing on beefing up the synagogue’s range of services the rest of the time, Valley Beth Israel has experienced a revival of sorts. Membership is booming, more children are enrolled in the Hebrew school and attendance is up at services every Saturday. Goodman sees his "one person, two clergy" plan as the way to go for small congregations.

"There are many synagogues who can’t afford two clergy and they really don’t know what to do," Goodman said. "Normally a synagogue in that position will hire a rabbi full time and hire a cantor for the high holidays. They are left the rest of the year without anyone to sing the services with them."

Goodman thinks that with his plan, congregations can secure the services of a popular clergy member and keep within a small budget. "Congregations may not know that this option is available to them," he said. "I know that my congregation saves an enormous amount of money paying one clergy, and there is a huge benefit to having a person that you like provide the leadership you are looking for."

While most Orthodox synagogues hire a cantor only for the High Holidays, and use lay people to lead the services during the year, many Conservative and Reform congregations hire a full-time cantor who provides a number of services to the congregation. Typically, a cantor’s duties will include leading the congregation in prayer and teaching bar and bat mitzvah classes, and he will come to his role after having voice training and studying cantillation, liturgy and the history and structure of prayer. A rabbi, on the other hand, usually has a greater knowledge of halachah and will provide the overall spiritual leadership of a congregation.

New rabbis fresh out of rabbinical college can command a salary of somewhere between $65,000 and $90,000, if they are the sole rabbi of their congregation; less if they are the second or third rabbi. Cantors’ wages are similar. For small congregations, with less than 200 members, paying two sets of salaries can be a burdensome financial undertaking.

Alice Greenfield from the United Synagogue Association, said that she could identify six congregations in the Los Angeles area that are currently struggling to pay their clergy.

"Many of these congregations are in areas where, if they were strong congregations, the population has aged and has not picked up new members," she said.

Mel Gottlieb, the dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, said that purist might look askance at the mingling of two clergy positions, but it is a practical solution for smaller congregations.

"Professional cantors may not feel really thrilled about it, because they like to think of themselves as a big inspirational force that contributes to the importance of the service," he said. "But I would recommend it for smaller congregations."

Now Goodman is concentrating on making the synagogue a more dynamic place. He introduced musical accompaniment to the services, and once a month he teaches classes on the prayer book so that people can understand what they are saying. He is bringing in visiting rabbis to teach kabbalah and Talmud and is overseeing the Hebrew school, which currently has 11 students and is free for members.

"When I came to the synagogue four years ago, it almost seemed like the doors were going to close any minute," Goodman said. "But now everyone is extremely excited about our future and our ability to thrive as a synagogue, because we are in a financial position where we could stay open. It is really the rebirth of a synagogue."