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Profession Starts to Lose Its Pitch

February 25, 2010 By:
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An exterior shot of Gratz College, which is ending its decades-old cantorial program. Photo by Greg Bezanis

Cantor Arlyne Unger readily sings the praises of the Jewish education she received at Gratz College.

The 55-year-old, who serves in the dual roles of education director and chazzan at Beth Tikvah B'nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Erdenheim, started out studying at Gratz's Hebrew high school as a teen.

She also took undergraduate courses at the college and, years later, earned her master's degree in Jewish education and received her cantorial training there.

But her most recent tie to Gratz ---- teaching the next generation of aspiring cantors -- is coming to an end with the school's decision to close its roughly 30-year-old cantorial program. "It kind of felt that a member of my family was lost when they announced it was being discontinued," said Unger.

That move followed three consecutive years in which no new students had enrolled, according to officials at the school. In August, Gratz officially laid off the program's longtime director, Marsha Bryan Edelman.

The program's five remaining students are slated to graduate in May.

Bruce H. Holberg, chair of Gratz's board of directors, said that the lack of interest from prospective students led the administration to make a "data-driven" decision.

"There was just no demand for the program," he said.

The move to shutter its cantorial program -- announced in an e-mail to its remaining students -- comes at a time of great uncertainty for Gratz. The institution, which has been an integral part of the Philadelphia Jewish community for more than a century, is experiencing financial difficulty. Last year, it was forced to make layoffs and pay cuts.

The country's oldest transdenominational Jewish college is also searching for a president -- Jonathan Rosenbaum stepped down last July -- and is in the early stages of a strategic-planning process to help clarify the school's mission and constituency.

But the move also reflects a shift -- some call it a crisis -- in the cantorial profession.

As Gratz's program is ending, one of the nation's oldest cantorial programs, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, appears to be in disarray. According to news reports, an independent consultant suggested that the Conservative movement's program -- which has 35 students, compared to 115 rabbinical students -- is too costly to run and should be shut down.

Instead, JTS' chancellor, Arnold Eisen, fired the school's longtime dean, Cantor Henry Rosenblum, and folded the program into the rabbinical school, leading some to question its future.

Eisen insisted that it remains vitally important, but needs to be updated.

The role of the cantor itself has undergone a sea change in the past 30 years. Long gone are the days when cantors were expected to be pulpit stars who dazzled with their operatic voices. (In the early decades of the recording industry, at the start of the last century, when many Jews purchased records of liturgical music, some cantors like Yosef "Yossele" Rosenblatt became household names.)

But in the 21st century, the job description for a cantor is as long and varied as it is for a rabbi. Cantors are often expected to teach the entire congregation, from preschool kids to seniors, as well as split pastoral and administrative duties with the rabbi, according to those in the industry.

"The old model of the cantor just being the master of the nusach and the melodies and just doing Bar Mitzvah training is not enough. They need to be a teacher for the whole community," said Harold Messinger, who will be among the Gratz program's last graduates in May, but already serves as chazzan at Beth Am Israel, a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley.

At the same time, shifting trends in Jewish music and the preference for more participatory services and tunes that congregants can sing along to have changed the expectations placed on cantors.

In 2007, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music in New York, the Reform movement's cantorial program, made headlines when it appointed Debbie Friedman to a faculty position. The folk musician had no formal training and had long been considered a rebel against the traditional synagogue nusach, or liturgical melodies.

Some fear that the closing of the Gratz program is evidence that the pool of people willing to go through the rigors of training -- and mastering all the requisite musical, liturgical and linguistic skills -- may be drying up.

Cantor Jill Pakman, a Gratz graduate who works part-time at Temple Covenant of Peace, a Reform synagogue in Easton, Pa., said that the news out of Gratz and JTS is distressing, as is the fact that some cantors now feel compelled to articulate their importance to congregational life.

"What's so sad about this is that cantors could be the ultimate functionary -- the ultimate spiritual leader for small congregations that can no longer afford a rabbinical salary," said the 49-year-old.

The Gratz program has always been on the small side. Administrators said that it's had roughly 25 graduates since it was founded in the early 1980s. (Cantorial schools in America date to the 1940s. Before that, most students trained as apprentices to other cantors.)

The Reform and Conservative cantorial programs bestow what's known as investiture, as opposed to ordination, on its graduates, who are then automatically admitted into a cantorial union and usually get first crack at job openings. Graduates of Yeshiva University's Orthodox cantorial program are also admitted to a cantorial union, which helps them get positions in their chosen field.

Gratz, in contrast, granted only a master's degree, sometimes making it more difficult to land a job.

Holberg said that it's possible, but not likely, that at the end of the calendar year, the board could decide to retool and relaunch the program, as some graduates and current students hope.

Edelman, who had run the program since 1985, said that she respected the board's decision, but stressed that in recent years, "we didn't have the resources to recruit as aggressively as might have been necessary."

Rabbis currently stand a far better chance of landing a job, according to several cantors in the field. Even before the recession, many synagogues had opted to cut back or eliminate their cantorial positions, they said.

Some congregations have decided that they can get by with a rabbi or a lay leader directing the tunes.

But Edelman thinks that's a big mistake. In addition to all the other roles they perform, cantors are stewards -- part of an important musical and liturgical tradition that shouldn't be lost to synagogue life.

Program Boasted Real Strengths 
While it wasn't perfect, a number of students and graduates said that Gratz's cantorial program had real strengths, including the chance to study in a nondenominational setting.

Messinger said that the program offered a solid foundation in traditional liturgy and melody, so much so that he could lead Orthodox services if he chose. At the same time, teachers there nurtured nontraditional approaches. Messinger, for example, leads musical Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evenings that utilize guitar, percussion and standing base, and draws from a wide range of different influences.

Messinger said at Gratz, he was shown multiple ways to lead a service and encouraged to find his own style.

Others noted that by allowing students to study part-time -- something the movement's seminaries do not permit -- Gratz offered local students with jobs or families the chance to study without picking up and moving to New York.

Pakman, who lives in Yardley and commutes to her synagogue in Easton, said that she "wouldn't trade her education," but at times felt that there wasn't enough focus on teaching skills and the other aspects of the job.

"I can't say that I didn't feel that the program needed some revamping, that's what I was hoping for," added Pakman.

Still, she said, the program's apparent demise is "a great loss, and I feel that it was short-sighted on the administration's part to not find a way to maintain it."

Joy Goldstein, Gratz's chief operating officer, responded that the administration had little choice: "Our board is committed to making data-driven decisions, and a trend of no enrollment for a third consecutive year was a pretty clear driver in this process. Everyone regrets that we had to make this decision."

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