Thank you Cantor, we’ll see you next Rosh Hashana!

Cantor Shlomie Rabin In A Kittel and White Chazzan Hat

I have been meditating on a simple question: Why don’t Shuls bring more music and cantors for Shabbats throughout the year? For High Holidays, most Shuls flock to hire someone either in house or from outside, but it mostly goes quiet after that. 

Cantor Singing & Wearing A Black Chazzan Hat

High-net-worth individuals operating their own Shuls or private minyan, oftentimes have a cantor in house or bring music regularly. When people make a Simcha such as a Bar Mitzvah or Sheva Brachot off site like at a hotel or vacation home, they typically invest in music for the prayers and choirs for the meals. If the value add that a Cantor brings is clear, why doesn’t it trickle down to the Shuls themselves? 

First, let’s clarify what I mean by “music” and “Chazzan”. In this context I use the term music loosely referring to melodies, singing and tunes that are done aloud. I do not mean musical instruments, rather acapella and vocals. I also use the terms Cantor / Chazzan interchangeably and loosely simply to refer to the one who leads the services. It does not need to be a heavy voice that shows off and makes it about themselves. Nowadays the most successful cantors are those who blend traditional “cantorial” with contemporary music and singer style. That means, they include more singing and very few if any “cantorial pieces”. They make it about community inclusion and encouraging them to sing along to tunes that are familiar. They meet the audience at their level and curate thoughtful song selection, sometimes including a repertoire such as Broadway, pop culture and Israeli classics. They give a glimpse into their vocal abilities while leaving the crowd wanting more. They push and pull with time all the while making sure to deliver the audience on time for Kiddush! 

Above all, they use music as a conduit to connect and inspire the audience to feel something. To tap into an emotion, to reflect on a prayer, to feel hopeful and joyous. To be in solidarity with the IDF, kidnapped hostages, and pray for the government. A masterful chazzan can feel the room and can create energy that moves the crowd! THAT is what makes it special! A good cantor’s measure for success is making sure that when the prayers are done, people leave the synagogue with a step in their foot, smiling, and feeling connected to their soul, their community and their creator! 

Lastly, a good chazzan is not just good for prayer time, but also great to have for singing Friday night at a community Shabbat dinner or a home. On Shabbat morning they can sing at the Kiddush and at lunch. Some cantors even play an instrument and can do a musical Havdalah. 


  • FOR THE RABBI: It makes you look better, and your work is more supported when you have a fellow professional on your team. 
  • FOR THE SHUL: People end up staying in Shul longer, are more likely to come back, and will probably spread the word to their friends! Shul becomes more attractive, which helps with current member retention as well as recruiting new ones. 
  • FOR THE MEMBERS: A nice Chazzan gives them a change, a break from the same people leading, and something to talk about. If they need someone for a wedding or bar mitzvah they have someone they know already.

Nowadays, a full time cantor is rare, mainly due to having a fixed expense that you must accommodate, and the requirement for a long term contract and commitment. I propose a more modern agreement where a shul uses a “freelance / gig” model. You hire as needed and when there is funding. This relieves the pressure of another salary, and also has the benefit of keeping things fresh and special when a chazzan does come. 

There are three business models that work well:

  1. Individual donors sponsor it for their special occasions (Bar or Bat Mitzvah, Birthday etc.)

    Cantor Tallit Bag And Notes Folder
  2. One or a few donors cover the annual budget to bring a periodic / monthly Chazzan
  3. The shul pays for some or all of it from a shul fund

Why not bring a chazzan?

Many synagogue leaders say that the budget is tight and does not allow for this elective expense. What if the Synagogue offered an option to the donor sponsoring the Kiddush, to also sponsor a cantor? What’s in it for the donor? He gets the public credit for a nicer Shul experience and will look better in front of his guests. What is in it for the Shul / Leadership? They end up adding more value to the membership without incurring the costs!

I sometimes hear from Rabbi’s that the main attraction to a synagogue is a dynamic Rabbi and his oratory skills. While this is indeed critical for growing the community, is it sufficient? When you go to a nice restaurant, you want to have a good experience all around. Good food is nice, but when coupled with good service and great ambience the whole evening changes. Similarly if a Shul can check all the boxes, in this case 1: great davening 2: great sermon 3: great food / Kiddush then people are having an elevated synagogue experience.

Some leaders are concerned that the cantor will steal the show and feel threatened by the entertainer getting more attention than the Rabbi or President. That is a human and maybe instinctive reaction, however there are a few things to bear in mind:

  • The chazzan is not going to be there weekly, and you are. Your position is permanent and he comes on occasion.
  • The roles do not really intersect. A Rabbi’s job is to inspire by speaking and a cantor’s role is to inspire by singing. 
  • Selling fast food is easier than luxury steaks, similarly music is easy to like and be fascinated by, whereas making Judaism and learning entertaining is much harder. It is simply the nature of the product, it is not personal. 
  • Make the Chazzan your ally, instead of keeping them at arms distance, enroll and recruit them in helping you achieve your goals. For example, have the cantor help with a fundraising relationship, or sing at your Friday night dinner. 

Some people simply do not like music and singing for a variety of reasons. Oftentimes, those same people do not listen to music outside of Synagogue life either. That is ok. They are usually the minority albeit oftentimes a fierce or very vocal one. Now that the hecklers have been handled, let’s look at who does love music! Firstly, the women in the Shul love singing and soulfulness, they will be the first fans and maybe even sponsors! Now for the men; some are connected to emotions and music and others are more passive about it but most enjoy and appreciate a good voice when they hear one.

Religious and non religious Jews alike often associate Jewish occasions and holidays with tunes (many from childhood). It is so embedded that sometimes controversy arises when “the tune I grew up with” was not sung at the Passover Seder or High Holiday service. Song helps with memory, mood and feeling connected. 

Philosophically: Prayer / Tefillah is referred to as “Avodah Shebalev” or service of the heart. That is in contrast to Torah study which is meant to be an exercise for the mind and intellect. Music evokes feelings like when you go to a concert and really feel it! Prayer is meant to be a spiritual cardio workout which is about emotion and singing does just that.

Practically: Music is full of different dynamics. There is minor and major, slow and fast, heartfelt and upbeat. The prayers too have variety with some being solemn, while others are joyous. A good cantor can bring these prayers and feelings to life. 

While some Cantors can and do Shlepp, there is a time and place for everything. Cantorial concerts are great for authentic old school cantorial music. In mainstream synagogues that style is no longer the norm and the prevalent mindset is to include the community in the singing. 

Now you need to Daven anyway, so why not make the reading parts nice and the singing parts even nicer? When done well, the community enjoys the parts they participate in and the parts they listen to as well. Additionally, children and young adults learn best when singing is done clearly and out loud. 

To ensure a good experience you can also implement the following tips:

  • Make sure the cantor knows your end time (and any buffers/ grace period)
  • See to it that the chazzan has a clock in view or a wrist watch nearby
  • Communicate how important the end time is and why, so the cantor is on the same page
  • If things run late or the Rabbi takes more time for a sermon thereby leaving less time for Mussaf, reassure the cantor that they are doing a good job even if it is a shorter service
  • Create an alternative space for the cantor to shine such as a feature song at the Kiddush
  • Discuss and document song selection so there’s a bigger chance that the tunes will work for your community – the Nussach Itinerary is great tool for that.
Shabbat Nussach Itinerary – Shown In Ashkenaz

While many can make good food at home, we also go to restaurants. Similarly here, with a cantor we experience new tunes, and a fresh approach to something familiar. There is also some amazing talent out there and the energy in the air when the community is uplifted is unique and special! People have a “Simchas Yom Tov” and or “Oneg Shabbos” and a Shabbat morning goes from routine and ordinary to unique and extraordinary. 

Even when you bring a guest cantor, you will still need to rely on local members for the Tefillos the chazzan does not lead and for the weeks in between. Bringing guest cantors also serves as an inspiration to Children and Bar Mitzvah boys for when they grow up.

I believe that a good balance is about once a month. It keeps it fresh and special and the Shul can even get someone different each month. Do it for special occasions within the community, shul anniversaries or holidays. Other great times are Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, Shabbat Chanukah, Shabbat Purim and Shabbat Nachamu. 

Choirs are great! If there is room in the budget, they can really enhance the experience! I highly recommend them when you are doing a large meal and you want the singing to take off. 

An average good chazzan costs around $1,500 – $2,500 locally and then up from there for more professionals. For singers / cantors with a big name it is higher in the $5,000 – $10,000 range. Travel expenses are usually additional costs. 


  • Shul Member – you can offer to bring a cantor to your community for the next special occasion in your life!
  • Community Leader – see if there is someone in the Shul that likes music or singing and may want to sponsor a week, or a budget for the year!
  • Community Activist – perhaps you can subsidize a program for your synagogue as well as other synagogues in your area. You can work with foundations, federations and other entities to advance more music in synagogues!

Shlomie Rabin is a New York based Cantor and founder of Jplacing talent agency.

Write to Shlomie at

About the Author
Shlomie Rabin is a Brooklyn based freelance Cantor and founder of a boutique Jewish talent agency that helps connect cantor and entertainment acts to synagogues and non profits for high holidays and year round!
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