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Jewish Journal

Conservative Cantors Converge

by Ellen Jaffe-Gill

May 8, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Several hundred cantors associated with the Conservative movement will be making beautiful music together in Los Angeles this week, even as they examine the roles of the cantor beyond that of liturgical jukebox.

The Cantors Assembly will base its annual national convention at the Universal Hilton May 11-15, with public concerts offered at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air on Monday, May 12, and Sinai Temple in Westwood on Tuesday, May 13. Scores of local chazzanim and other musicians will participate.

While the convention will include numerous presentations on traditional and contemporary synagogue music, during the week several of the highlighted speakers will address broader issues facing congregations and the Jewish community as a whole.

Aside from the exposure to new music and techniques and the camaraderie of being with peers, one purpose of the convention is to explore the role of cantor as klei kodesh (literally, holy vessel), or clergy member, a position that transcends music-making, said Joseph Gole, senior cantor of Sinai Temple, a local co-chair of the convention.

"The cantorate today is expanding beyond music and pastoral counseling," said convention co-chair Nathan Lam, senior cantor of Stephen S. Wise. "There's an outside world that's impacting on Jews, and we cantors have to be ready to deal with that world."

Speakers include Venice-based rabbi and author Naomi Levy, whose latest book focuses on creating one's own prayers, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism (UJ), who will discuss the upcoming debate within the Committee on Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis' organization, over whether openly gay and lesbian individuals can be admitted to Conservative seminaries and clergy groups; currently, they are barred.

The subject of homosexuals being accepted as students and clergy is relevant to cantors, as any decision involving rabbis covers cantorial students and cantors as well, Dorff told The Journal.

Beyond that, he said, "Cantors have gays and lesbians as members of their extended families and sometimes not-so-extended families," and they encounter gay men and lesbians in their congregations.

Levy, who encourages readers to bring prayer into their lives in her book "Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle and Celebration," told The Journal she hopes cantors at the convention will "take the idea back that prayers doesn't just exist in the siddur.... If we can empower our congregations to create personal prayer, it would be the greatest service we can give."

Cantors are as important as rabbis in the formation of congregants' prayer lives, Levy added, "since they're the ones who express the liturgy; their impact is even greater, so it's important to talk with them about personal prayer."

Other prominent Los Angeles-based speakers are Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the UJ, pundit Dennis Prager and Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe. In addition, commentator and political adviser Steven Emerson will address the convention on global terrorism.

The convention will also include a presentation by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and a preview of the ambitious Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, which are both locally based, and it will kick off with a program on the image of the cantor in film, which includes screenings of the original 1927 "The Jazz Singer" and the 1937 Yiddish film "The Cantor's Son."

Holding the convention in Los Angeles allows a greater representation of West Coast cantors than an Eastern location does, indicated convention co-chair Chayim Frenkel, cantor at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

"It used to be that the 'great cantors' were back East," Frenkel said. "I think Los Angeles has a rich history of chazzanut, a heritage of unbelievable cantors that goes back decades."

The first of the two public concerts sponsored by the convention will be an extravaganza celebrating American Jewish music and music makers, with Lam as narrator. Employing a light show and video projections along with a 13-piece band and a 100-voice choir, the show will present Yiddish favorites, synagogue art music and theater pieces.

The Tuesday night concert at Sinai Temple, featuring the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale along with soloists, will focus on masterpieces of the cantorial literature. Frenkel said the assembly hopes to raise $250,000 to help fund scholarships at the Jewish Theological Seminary cantorial school.

For more information about the public concerts, call Debbie Gordon at (310) 476-8561 ext. 2228 for the May 12 event or Maureen Rosenberg at (310) 481-3235 for the May 13 concert. For information on the convention, log on to www.cantors.org .

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