Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
he cantorate is one of the oldest Jewish professions; the position of
prayer leader) developed during the first centuries before
the Common Era. It was formally delineated by Rabban Gamaliel II (fl.
C.E.), shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. By 600 C.E., the
became a paid official. As the prayer book became fixed and
gical poetry) were added to elaborate on the themes of the prayer rubrics, it
became necessary to have an expert to lead services.
Throughout the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, cantors continued
to interpret the prayers. Their music became quite elaborate; prayer modes
became fixed according to the liturgical year. In the 19th century, early
Reform leadership tried to create services that looked and sounded more like the
Protestant worship around them. The cantor became an embarrassment, since the
music sounded non-Western. Salomon Sulzer made the cantorate relevant again
by setting the traditional melodies to harmonies and forms of Viennese romanti-
cism. Others followed his lead and a new, wonderful repertoire combined classical
composition with traditional
When the School of Sacred Music was established in 1948, Sulzer was its
model for the cantorate. The goal was to train fine musicians who were also
deeply grounded in the millennial-old traditions. A faculty was recruited that com-
posed music that continued to combine classical compositional technique with
traditional modes. Great music by Abraham Binder, Frederick Picket, Lazar Weiner,
and others added to the repertoire of the Reform synagogue.
This Sulzerian synthesis was threatened as the Reform Movement took an-
other turn in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. Young people embraced a
participatory folk style of liturgical music that moved away from the more formal
styles of the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Synagogue leadership began to implement
this new, inclusive style of worship. If everyone sang together, what role was there
for a professional cantor?
Gradually, a new model of cantorial leadership has emerged. The job descrip-
tion goes well beyond the traditional
teacher, choir director, and
service leader. Cantors are now expected to teach students from pre-school to
senior citizens. They go to hospitals to offer pastoral care, counsel congregants,
and officiate at the full range of life cycle events. Cantors now serve as co-clergy
with their rabbinical partners.
This shift has called for a new curriculum for our school. Under the past lead-
ership of Rabbi Cantor Jon Haddon, Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, and Cantor Israel
Goldstein, cantorial education was expanded to include a year in Israel, a Master’s
thesis, an increased emphasis on guitar and contemporary repertoire, and profes-
sional development. In the past five years, our faculty, alumni, and I have created a
new core curriculum that furthers this trajectory in four major areas: Liturgical
Music, General Music, Judaica, and Professional Development. Our goal is to train
students in the breadth and depth of the cantorial tradition, exposing them to a
wide range of musical styles and professional skills, taught by a pluralistic faculty
representing many different streams of Judaism, at a caliber unmatched by any
other cantorial school in the world.
Our students learn to arrange for bands, accompany on piano and guitar, cre-
ate curricula for music in religious school, gain counseling skills, and explore their
inner life through spiritual direction courses. Many take clinical pastoral education
CPE) courses over the summer. They learn to combine ancient
temporary music to create engaging, participatory services. They have the option
of extending their studies by a year to earn an additional M.A. in Religious Educa-
tion or Jewish Nonprofit Management.
Now, as the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, we strive to honor the
memory of this inspiring composer and performer and her innovative strategies to
transform congregations by creating cantors who will uplift the hearts of their
congregants in meaningful worship. Come to think of it, that has always been the
Not Your Parents’ Cantorate
Cantor Bruce Ruben, Ph.D;
Director, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, HUC-JIR/New York
Cantor Bruce Ruben with com-
poser/performer Debbie Friedman,
at the “Debbie & Friends” concert bene-
fiting HUC-JIR’s School of Sacred Music,
which was named in Friedman’s memory
in recognition of her transformative im-
pact on contemporary Jewish music on
January 27, 2011.
Artist-in-Residence Joyce Rosen-
Jamie Marx, David
Frommer, Cheryl Wunch, Joshua Breitzer,
and Melanie Cooperman in the Petrie
Synagogue at HUC-JIR/New York.