Local cantors create a sense of spirituality, also serving as mentors and counselors to congregants.
Featured photo by Marty Abrin
The members of the Michigan Board of Cantors want you to know that they are more than a collection of pretty voices. Someone who simply leads and interprets prayers is not necessarily a cantor. The equivalent would be calling anyone who presents an interpretation on a Jewish text a rabbi, he said.
“Singing is just a little bit of what we do,” he said. Even the English translation of the Hebrew word hazzan to “cantor,” a Latin word taken from the Christian church, doesn’t do justice to the role. The Hebrew word “hazzan” implies “visionary” and includes not only leading Jewish prayer but also Jewish education and pastoral care, said Gross of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. He prefers the title “hazzan” to “cantor.”
Neil Michaels of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield and current president of the Michigan Board of Cantors, says cantors have traditionally been responsible for leading prayer, chanting Torah, working with choirs, training b’nai mitzvah students and teaching Hebrew in religious schools. Now, he said, “their role has expanded to include giving eulogies and sermons, counseling and even preparing an individual for conversion.”
The hazzan is known as the shaliach tzibor, the emissary of the congregation; the word has visionary overtones. In ages past, the hazzan led the community in public prayer while the rabbi’s job was mainly to teach, counsel and answer questions of law, said Hazzan Steve Klaper, a founder of Song & Spirit Institute for Peace in Royal Oak. New Jewish communities would often hire a hazzan before hiring a rabbi, and cantors were recognized by the civil authorities as clergy with authority to solemnize marriages.
“Hazzanim are more than singers or performers,” he said. “The shul is not a theatrical stage and davening is not a concert. We teach and lead worship through an alternate carrier wave, creating an effect at once emotional, intellectual and spiritual. We change the vibration of the room and the state of mind of the congregants in ways that most rabbis cannot. We are the spiritual caretakers of the congregation.”
The training for hazzanim is similar to that of rabbis, Gross said. In the major American cantorial schools at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) and Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform), cantorial study takes five years, including one in Israel. At the end of the program, the hazzanim are ordained or invested and are considered to be clergy.
“Cantors in this community are truly respected” on a level similar to rabbis. That’s not true in every community, he added.