Pittsburgh alumni put positive spin on JTS merger of cantorial, rabbinic programs

Pittsburgh alumni put positive spin on JTS merger of cantorial, rabbinic programs

As fewer Conservative congregations nationwide employ full-time cantors, or hire cantors instead of rabbis to serve as their spiritual leaders, the Jewish Theological Seminary has made the major decision to integrate its cantorial program into its rabbinic school.
The decision means cantorial students will still graduate at the end of a five-year course of study as vested cantors, though there will no longer be an independent cantorial school.
Henry Rosenblum, who has served as the dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School for the last 12 years, will lose his position as a result of the restructuring.
Beginning this summer, the cantorial program will become part of JTS’s larger rabbinical school and will be supervised by the rabbinical school’s dean, Danny Nevins.
The decision was met with great anguish in New York.
“On Feb. 8, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen met with a large, distraught group of students, alumni and faculty to defend the de facto demotion of the cantorial school,” reported Tablet, an online Jewish publication.
Locally, however, Cantor Rick Berlin, a graduate of the JTS cantorial program, believes integrating the rabbinate and cantorial programs could have a positive impact on the students.
Because the pastoral care program, the cantorial program and the rabbinate soon will fall under the same umbrella, Berlin, the spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center, says, “The three fields will be put on the same educational footing, and the knowledge and capabilities of the cantorate will increase. Rabbis and cantors will always have a different focus, but increasing the Talmudic knowledge of cantors is a wise thing to do.”
“[Integration of the programs] ultimately has the opportunity to have a positive effect on the cantorate and strengthen leadership in the Conservative movement,” he continued. “But we will have to see what will develop and what will happen.”
Integrating the programs may have been motivated, in part, by an effort to cut costs, and a reflection of the needs of a changing Conservative movement. JTA reports that the school is millions of dollars in debt, and that the Conservative movement has seen a steady decline in its membership rolls.
Last spring, the seminary’s board hired management consultant Jack Ukeles to develop a strategic plan for revamping the institution, according to a JTA report. The plan that Ukeles drafted a few months later advised shutting down the cantorial school altogether. That plan was ultimately rejected.
With the exception of Berlin — who serves as the spiritual leader of his congregation — there are currently no full-time cantors left in Pittsburgh, lamented Cantor Steve Stoehr, who was born in Pittsburgh, and lived here until he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and left for JTS in 1983.
“Pittsburgh had a rich history of cantors,” said Stoehr, who has been serving as cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill., for the last 20 years, and is a past international president of the Cantors Assembly. But, as has happened in many other communities across the country, the needs of the congregations changed, making the full-time cantor the exception rather than the norm.
By integrating the programs at JTS, Stoehr said future cantors and rabbis would acquire skills enabling them to wear different hats, and in practical terms, improve their marketability.
“I think that Eisen does not want to do away with the two specific callings, but wants each one to be more skilled and appreciative of the other,” Stoehr said.
“No longer do synagogues want to hire someone with the unparalleled vocal artistry of a Cantor [Moshe] Taube,” Stoehr said. “Lots of congregations don’t have the funds to hire someone with that unique skill set. Instead, they are looking for people to play multiple roles.”
Congregations frequently look for a rabbi with skills ranging beyond those typically associated with the rabbinate, Stoehr said, including community activism and fundraising. Likewise, congregations may be looking for cantors “who not just have a beautiful voice, but can do youth work and chaplaincy.”
The new structure of JTS hopefully will help develop a sense of “teamwork” between cantors and rabbis, Stoehr said.
“It used to be that we rarely crossed paths with rabbinic students,” he said, noting that such interaction generally did not occur until the end of the five-year degree program. “I think it is the chancellor’s intentions to have those paths cross in the earlier years.”
Earlier interaction, he added, “will be very beneficial to the students and will ultimately have a positive effect on the marketability of both cantors and rabbis.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net)

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