October 2, 2003
Taking the Chazan Home
When Josh Sharfman started tracking the number of hits on his year-old educational Web site, www.virtualcantor.com, he was struck by how many people were visiting the site on Shabbat.
It turned out that people who were shut-ins or who lived far from a shul were using his digitized voice to lead in-home Shabbat services. One man brought the recordings to his father's hospital bed, while another woman used the site to learn the tunes so she would feel more comfortable in shul. A student in Florida taught himself the "Kol Nidre" and will lead campus services.
"There are e-mails and correspondence and gifts from all over the world," said Sharfman, senior vice president of products at LRN, which legal compliance and ethics training to large companies worldwide.
Sharfman's passion, and the reason he founded the site, is the perpetuation of nusach, the traditional melodic themes that identify prayers with times of the year and times of the day.
"Nusach is the tradition that links us back in time and creates a real sense of holiness, of kedusha," said Rabbi Micha'el Akiba of P'nai Or in Long Beach, who collaborated with Sharfman on the site.
Few traditional shuls employ cantors and services are often led by ba'alei tefilah -- lay people who lead prayers -- and Sharfman, who leads High Holiday services at B'nai David-Judea Congregation on Pico Boulevard, hopes his site will help them understand the importance of nusach.
At the urging of his uncle, Renewal Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Sharfman teamed up with Akiba, a former musician, to record hours worth of prayers sung in the traditional Western European nusach, available to download off the site.
The site includes a list of the ba'al tefilah's parts for all of the davening from throughout the year, as well as Torah readings and other songs.
Sharfman and Akiba funded the startup, and don't charge for any of the services, including sending out CDs. But donations from users have begun to support the site. The two hope others will eventually contribute their talents so that virtualcantor.com can include other nuschaot, such as Sephardic or Eastern European.
Of course, those not planning on leading prayers can just listen for the pleasure of Sharfman's rich baritone enunciating each word and each note -- a good way to get in the mood for whatever the upcoming holiday may be.