Although she was deeply involved in Jewish life, Sandy Cahn didn’t consider herself a shul person.
“I did not ever go to synagogue, even though I had a strong Jewish background,” says Cahn, who has been a lay leader of numerous communal organizations.
Recently, following a tragedy in her life, she began attending Shabbat services at the New York Synagogue “to find some solace.”
She found it in the form of cantorial music, which has become a key component of Shabbat worship at the Orthodox congregation on East 58th Street. On any given Saturday, services there are led by either Netanel Hershtik or Dudu Fisher, joined by a choir conducted by Itzhak Naimov.
“Cantorial music really spoke to me,” said Cahn, a professional with a diabetes research foundation and now a regular at the synagogue. “It’s very peaceful, very inspirational. I walk all the way from the West Side, a half-hour walk, but it’s worth it.”
Bucking a trend that has found younger congregants more interested in participatory singing on Shabbat morning than listening to cantorial soloists, some New Yorkers suggest that cantors are on the ascendancy — up to a point. The New York Synagogue and its sister congregation on Long Island, The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, where Fisher and Hershtik perform during the summer, have joined the short ranks of local Orthodox congregations that employ cantors for regular Sabbath services. Both shuls are led by Rabbi Marc Schneier.
Those ranks also include Park East Synagogue, led by Rabbi Schneier’s father, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, where Cantor Yitzchak Helfgot is regularly featured, as well as Associate Cantor Avi Schwartz.
Both Rabbi Schneiers report that attendance is up at their respective congregations and that services are inspiring more people like Cahn to become regulars. And both are planning concerts to showcase their cantors’ talents next month.
“There is a greater appreciation today for the cantorial art and that’s why we made a deliberate decision to get one of the finest virtuosos,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
That greater appreciation notwithstanding, it remains rare for Orthodox congregations these days to take on cantors, unlike their Reform and Conservative counterparts, where male and female cantors are far more common.Only about seven Orthodox congregations out of hundreds in the New York area have full-time cantors, while another 55 have part-time cantors, according to Cantors World, a nonprofit dedicated to fueling a cantorial renaissance.
The head of the National Council of Young Israel movement, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, said hiring cantors has become less of a necessity since so many of those who grew up in synagogues now have the ability to conduct services on their own.
“Most shomer Shabbos people know how to daven, and if they have a good voice and enjoy davening, why hire a chazan?” he said. “In larger shuls, so many people have yahrzeits and want to daven [in honor of relatives] so it becomes politically difficult” not to allow them to lead the service.
There are, however, signs that cantorial music still holds a mystique in Orthodox life, including a growing number of student cantors and sellout crowds at concerts, such as one featuring Helfgot at Avery Fisher Hall in December that sold 2,800 tickets in 10 days.
“There is a resurgence of interest, but it has not trickled down to [hiring cantors in] Orthodox shuls,” said Charles Bernhaut, who co-founded Cantors World in 2003.
On the weekend of March 3, Cantors World will host a Shabbat in Princeton, N.J., showcasing such talents as Helfgot, Benzion Miller, Israel Rand and others. Also planned that weekend is cantorial karaoke and an open microphone for amateurs.
Last spring the group hosted an “American Idol”-style audition in Borough Park in a bid to discover the next big cantor. The winner would perform at a concert.
“There is no outlet for dozens and dozens of would-be cantors who love what they are doing and want to be heard because the shuls aren’t hiring,” said Bernhaut.
While chazanut, or musical liturgy, was a fixture in Orthodox shuls during the first half of the 1900s, making stars of Golden Age cantors like Yossele Rosenblatt, the Koussevitzky brothers, Zawel Kwartin and Mordechai Hershman, it has largely fallen out of favor in modern shul life.
“A lot of Orthodox want to pray and run, to get to the kiddush and the cholent,” said Bernhaut. “They don’t understand that chazanus raises the whole level of the service and inspires.”
Added Benny Rogosnitzky, co-founder of Cantor’s World and the cantor of The Jewish Center of the Upper West Side: “We’re used to connecting to the Internet at high speed. We want to connect to God at high speed, too. People don’t want a three-hour service.”
Others, though, say they prefer the communal singing to the more passive role of listening to cantorial solos.
Bernard Beer, a cantor and dean of Yeshiva University’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music, said the 50-year old academy is at a peak enrollment, with about 150 students working toward a cantorial certificate. Beer says he’s seen about a 25 percent increase in the number of men enrolled who are not majoring in other subjects at YU.
“What’s out there for them?” Beer asked. “Rosh HaShanah? Yom Kippur? It could be a part-time career. There is sometimes an engagement for Shabbosim. Some of us go out and do cantors-in-residence. But to engage on a yearly basis is a bit of a problem.”
Beer speculates that many of his students are drawn to the field in hopes of becoming entertainers, performing concerts and releasing albums.
“They also want to learn about it as an academic field,” he said. “We teach students general music history and Jewish music.”
In addition to Beer, instructors include Cantors Joseph Malovany of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Sherwood Goffin of Lincoln Square.
Another factor working against a cantorial renaissance is the expense.
“There is the question of whether or not the synagogues can afford to have another full-time clergyman on the payroll,” said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, director of programming at the Orthodox Union.
Top cantors are paid six-figure salaries that can rival those of rabbis, in addition to other compensation such as housing. Helfgot, who has been likened to a modern-day David Koussevitzky, is believed to be earning in the area of $250,000, a well-informed source said.
Both Helfgot and Fisher, who has starred in the Broadway production of “Les Miserables,” live in Israel and are regularly flown in to New York. Some of the leading cantors lead services once or twice a month.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, declining to discuss financial details, said it was worth the expense.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, who initially had Israel Rand as a cantor when he opened his Manhattan congregation in 2003, hired Fisher shortly after his father hired Helfgot. But both rabbis dismiss any notion of rivalry or one-upmanship.
“Both Marc and I have a tremendous appreciation of chazanut,” said the senior Rabbi Schneier.
The younger rabbi added that his congregation in the Hamptons had been featuring top-notch cantors since its inception.
“It was of paramount importance and concern to maintain this tradition” after starting the congregation in Manhattan, he said. “I’ve been a fan of chazanus since I was 10. My friends would be off at Madison Square Garden seeing rock concerts and I would be off going to a cantorial concert. There is an expression of spirituality that just lends beauty and majesty to the service and a spiritual dimension that so many are thirsting for.”
Beginning his career as cantor at the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv more than 30 years ago, Fisher has concentrated more recently on the stage, though he has continued to lead High Holy Days services in the United States.
In an interview from Israel, he said the New York Synagogue opportunity appealed to him because “it’s been a long time since a new Ashkenazic shul was built in New York and I wanted to help push it ahead.” Fisher added that it was a good opportunity to return to his roots.
“I was looking at myself like the ‘Jazz Singer,’ who left [being a cantor] to do show business and musicals,” he said. “I thought at my age, 54, it would be nice to go back and do this. It’s really nice to see the faces of the people in the synagogue dancing and singing together.”
Rogosnitzky of Cantors World said he hoped upcoming concerts and other performances could fuel a back-to-the-bima movement.
“If they go to the concert hall and see something they really like,” he said, “they may want to take some of that and bring it back to the synagogue.”