August 18, 2019

Cantors Sing a New Song

If Jewish Los Angeles seemed a more melodious place in late June, you can thank 250 of the Reform movement’s sweet singers of Israel, who gathered in Beverly Hills to celebrate Jewish music and share their knowledge, skills, and repertoire.

The 47th annual convention of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) and the Guild of Temple Musicians (GTM), the first to be held in greater Los Angeles since 1982, met June 25-29 at the Beverly Hilton. Participants included Reform cantors and cantorial soloists from across North America, plus a smattering of synagogue music directors and organists.

The programming covered the full range of musical styles now being offered in – or proposed for – Reform synagogues, with an emphasis on West Coast composers. “We wanted to let people know that this is where it’s happening,” said Cantor Sam Radwine of Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, a member of the convention’s local planning committee.

Much of the week’s activities reflected the trend toward synagogue music that’s easily singable by congregants and that incorporates contemporary sounds, including Craig Taubman’s popular “Friday Night Live” music and Cantor Steve Puzarne’s Tish Tones, a instrumentally and stylistically eclectic ensemble that has proved popular at Puzarne’s synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica.

Almost as strong a current throughout the convention as the musical character of Reform worship was attention to the role of the cantor, which has expanded, especially in how it’s perceived by rabbis and congregants, since many of the ACC members began their careers.

While many cantors have long worked with religious school children, helped prepare adolescents for Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and made hospital visits, it’s only recently that congregations have come to view cantors as educators and counselors as well as singers. “When I started out… I felt like a jukebox, where every time we needed a song, a quarter would be put in, and ka-ching, it was time to sing,” said Cantor Judith Rowland of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, a past president of the ACC.

“I think in today’s modern congregation, the cantor is more and more perceived as a partner in the clergy role of educating, moving, touching each and every member with his or her own individual expertise,” Rowland added.

The cantor plays a crucial role in Jewish lifecycle events and in healing rituals, said Anne Brener, a psychotherapist who has written extensively on caregiving and bereavement and who lectures at Hebrew Union College. “Cantors work with people at the most profound moments in their lives,” she said.In a workshop titled “The Cantor as Counselor,” Brener told participants of the need to create a “healing space” between themselves and the people to whom they’re listening. “More than just about anybody, I think cantors have the tool to create this space, which is your music,” she said.

Similarly, Arlene Chernow, Reform’s regional outreach director for the Southwest, led a workshop on the cantor’s role in welcoming mixed families and converts to Judaism. “Music is one of the places where the connection is made,” she told participants, adding that cantors are often seen by non-Jews in a congregation as more approachable than rabbis and therefore should have their radar up for people who need a supportive temple leader.

“I think the congregation sees their cantor now… as a person who they can come to for counseling, a person who they can come to for solace, who they can depend on in time of need and joy, someone who carries their prayer with [his] own,” said Cantor Scott Colbert of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta.The 2000 ACC/GTM convention provided glorious music and collegial interaction, plus new tunes and ideas to share with congregations. As Cantor Linda Ecker of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, another member of the convention’s local planning committee, said, it was meant to send participants home “refreshed, revitalized and ready to roll.”

No one expressed the role of the cantor better than Samuel Kelemer, cantor emeritus of Temple Beth Am and a founder of the ACC, who became a chazzan before he became a bar mitzvah and was honored at the convention’s Wednesday night banquet for more than 70 years in the cantorate. “I’m happy to say that I helped thousands of people feel closer to God,” Kelemer said. “It’s more than a calling – it’s a privilege.”