Alive and Well—A Vibrant Reform Cantorate

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Cantor Richard Cohn, Director, Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, HUC-JIR, writes:

Cantor Richard Cohn

At HUC-JIR's Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, where we just admitted one of our largest classes in recent years, the cantorate is in a process of continuous renewal.  Our cantors are flourishing throughout the Reform movement, integrating tradition with modernity and serving the Jewish community as spiritual leaders, liturgical artists, pastoral counselors and educators.  Rooted in the rich heritage of cantorial music and equally committed to the dynamic and inclusive repertory of our time, we are in the forefront of revitalizing public prayer.  Utilizing our interpretive skills and our ability to galvanize the voice of the congregation, we are helping to transform contemporary Judaism.

In my career I have witnessed first-hand how Jewish music bridges the generations.  Cantors bring a diverse array of voices into harmony, guiding congregants into a deeper relationship with one another and leading them toward a shared sense of meaning.  Cantors interconnect the different experiences of our lives through music that reaches the heart.  Cantors articulate the distinctive Jewish sound we identify readily with the synagogue.

Cantors David Mintz and Amanda Kleinman at the Petrie Synagogue at HUC-JIR/New York

The cantor’s calling is to express Judaism’s age-old soul-experience in a musical language that speaks to our time, while preserving reverberations of all that has come before.  Traditional chant is an essential part of that soundscape, which is why our students still immerse themselves in the world of cantillation (Biblical chant), nusach (prayer modes) and chazzanut (interpretive cantorial singing).  Our faculty, alumni and students excel in these disciplines.  They are also completely at home in the new music emerging from Israel, in the repertory of the leading singer-songwriters, in art music and in various genres of ethnic Jewish culture.  In addition to their congregational responsibilities, they serve on faculties of Reform Jewish summer camps, and they educate thousands of young people year-round in communities throughout North America.  They officiate at weddings, funerals, baby-namings and conversions.  Their collaborative partnerships with rabbis and congregational educators are essential to the modern fabric of Reform Jewish life.

Most importantly, a cantor helps to bind the souls of our people to the Soul of existence through song.  This relationship is ever-evolving, and its musical expression evolves accordingly.  Where have all the cantors gone?—We are in congregations large and small, helping people of all ages give heartfelt expression to the enduring melody of the Jewish spirit.

[In response to The Jewish Week's "Where Have All The Cantors Gone?" (August 28, 2015)]

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.