Alan Silverstein

Modernization of the Role of the Hazzan – The Cantors Assembly

During the modern era with Jewish citizenship in European nation-states, Jewish religious life was re-contoured to be in harmony with the institutional trends within Christendom. In a number of European communities, notably Germany and Britain, the age-old role of hazzan [like the “Cantor”/chanter in Christendom] came to be viewed as clergy. Once full citizenship and civil rights were accorded to Jews, hazzanim serving in synagogue life were accepted by the secular governments as clergy in the same way as rabbis.

In the United States, before the advent of ordained rabbis in 1840, hazzanim were engaged. The first two well known Jewish clergy were Hazzanim Gershom Seixas and Isaac Leeser. They solemnized marriages and represented the congregation in the eyes of civic authorities. Even after rabbis entered the equation in the mid-19th century there was often a dearth of Jewish clergy to serve the expanding Jewish population. Hazzanim of this early era were trained by fathers who practiced the vocation, via experiences within a synagogue choir, or through the guidance of a tutor. The role of the synagogue hazzan began to change during the period between WWI and WWII.

That period of time often is referred to as the “golden age” of hazzanut (cantorial performance). “Superstar” hazzanim emerged as folk heroes among America’s Eastern European Jewish masses. Experiencing their hazzanut filled the assembled with awe. These greats included Zavel Kwartin (1874–1953), Moritz Henle (1850–1925), Joseph “Yossele” Rosenblatt (1882–1933), Gershon Sirota (1874–1943), and Leib Glantz. After the conclusion of WWII, prominent cantors included  Moshe Koussevitzky, David Werdyger, Frank Birnbaum, Richard Tucker and Abraham Lopes Cardozo (1914–2006).

Yet parallel to admiration for these luminary cantorial soloists was a growing demand among American-born congregants for Cantors skilled in evoking congregational singing. Cantor Geoffrey Goldberg noted that the “feelings of nostalgia” for Eastern European nusach by the “superstars” waned among Jews born and/or raised the USA. Lay leaders came to view congregational singing “as a means of outreach and engagement of the young,” especially at late Friday evening services.

Following WWII, the GIs returned, married, had children, and moved to areas of Second Settlement [beyond immigrant neighborhoods – First settlement]. They sought to create synagogues to educate their sons and daughters. Emerging Conservative synagogues hoped to hire both a rabbi and a cantor as the key full-time clergy serving the membership.

However, demand for hazzanim exceeded “the supply.” Moreover, additional synagogue-based skills now were required. The Congregation Hazzan of the late 1940s ideally would lead congregational singing, “be proficient in areas of Judaica, Hebrew, music education [adult and youth], programming, administration, and pastoral service.”

In the eyes of prominent cantors like David Putterman and Max Wohlberg, what was needed was both a Cantors Institute and a Cantors assembly, equivalent in function to the JTS Rabbinical School and to the Rabbinical Assembly. Historian Neil Levin has identified a series of factors which enabled these goals to achieve fruition.

First, there was “a perceived sense that standards both musical and professional – had fallen to a precarious level radically diluting the liturgical traditions.”

Second, the high point so-called “Golden Age of Hazzanut.” “The era of virtuoso star hazzan, who had inspired genuine awe and even attained a folk hero status… had faded,” for the Americanized populace of Jews.

Third, the Holocaust had a devastating impact upon the American cantorate. It “all but severed the links to centuries-old musical- traditions – no longer a source of replacement cantorial candidates.”

Fourth, emerging synagogues were seeking “functional, congregational hazzanim,” to be full-time synagogue professionals, not merely being experts schooled in the liturgy. This new genre of hazzan “could not be produced by private teachers or via the traditional [hazzan] father-son chain.”

Fifth, competition in musical careers had expanded encouraging some talented young men to bypass the cantorate.

The redefined role of the Cantor within the synagogue required training both in a broad knowledge of Judaic as well as in musical education. As stated by opinion leaders of the time, “the cantor of today must be the all-embracing musical personality in his congregation.”

The pivotal person behind the transition into formal institutional training and professional collegiality for hazzanim was Cantor David Putterman of Park Avenue synagogue [1933-76]. Cantor Putterman was determined to elevate the standards, scope and direction of the American cantorate.

In 1947 he became the first Director of the United Synagogue’s new Department of Music. One of Cantor Putterman’s first projects was to establish the Cantors Assembly [CA] in 1947, serving as its Executive Director from 1947-59. The CA’s first annual convention took place in 1948.

Modeling the CA upon the RA, the CA took over the role of placement of Cantors into synagogue positions. The CA also set about providing retirement benefits and planning publications to standardize liturgical singing in Conservative congregations.

In 1948, the CA created the Cantors Institute and Seminary College of Jewish Music at JTS. The goal of the Cantors Institute was to provide professional training for cantors. As noted by historical Pamela Nadell, “to enable them to inspire other worshippers as well as to become an integral member of the congregation’s professional staff.”

During the next 70 years, the CA and the Cantors Institute have had a profound impact upon the evolution of Conservative Judaism in the US, in Canada and throughout the world.

Of special note, was the leadership of Rabbi Morton Leifman, who lovingly served as the long-term  Dean of the Cantors Institute[Seminary College of Jewish Music beginning in 1973. He taught nusach, or cantillation, and liturgy in both the cantorial and rabbinical schools at JTS, and also made recordings of them.

Today, under the leadership since 1998 of Executive Vice President Cantor Steven Stein, the Cantors Assembly sees its role in “promoting the profession of the Cantorate, serving its members and their congregations by supporting colleagues in their roles as vibrant, engaging, vital clergy and musical leaders.”

The CA of today offers “opportunities for mentorship, professional development and personal growth.”

The CA’s continuing education program “provides cantors with the skills to meet the ever-changing needs of those we are called up on to inspire.”

The CA seeks to “ensure that its members are fully prepared to lead synagogues and the larger Jewish community through an ever-evolving musical and spiritual landscape.”

The CA “has remained faithful to its principles while continuously re-evaluating and reimagining what the sacred calling of Hazzan can and should be to best serve Kehillot and their members. The CA continues to look for strategies that will daily engage all generations of Jews.”

Among the CA’s missions had been to “partner with some of the best-known contemporary Jewish song leaders, seeking to infuse the synagogue service with greater enthusiasm and spirit, thereby making prayer more participatory and accessible, while maintaining a sense of Kedushah.”

The CA also “has reached out to, and is establishing relationships with, the growing number of collegiate Jewish a cappella ensembles found at universities throughout North America.”

The CA publications department “continues to develop and publish new materials, including anthologies of congregational melodies, resources that guide laypersons in how to lead various services, and aids for B’nai Mitzvah students. “

  •  Publishing the Journal of Synagogue Music, a scholarly periodical
  • The publication of the book, Chosen Voices, a history of the American Cantorate
  •  Two films on the Cantorate – “More Than a Singer” and “100 Voices,” the second of which was screened in movie theaters throughout the country

“Creating partnerships with all arms of the Conservative Movement, Klal Yisrael and the greater community – notably conducting Missions to Israel, Poland, Germany and Spain”

New concepts for concerts are on the CA horizon, “including an interfaith series aimed at strengthening the bonds among practitioners of various faiths through music and shared texts.”

The Cantors Assembly of 2019 serves its nearly 600 male and female members and through their religious leadership, inspires hundreds of thousands of Jews of all ages

The CA’s primary training institution has been branded as the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary

In the words of CA leadership:

“So long as Jews yearn for God, and though musical tastes may change, there will be a need for the voice of a Hazzan to touch Jewish hearts and souls in times of both joy and sadness. The Cantors Assembly looks forward to a bright future, utilizing creativity, intellect and technology as we both respect our past and plan for the future.”

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”