Jewish Journal Staff
PEABODY — When Temple Beth Shalom (TBS) found itself in the market for a new cantor for the second time in a year, the leaders reevaluated the position and decided to go in the direction of a cantor-educator, rather than of a part-time cantor.
In doing so, they joined many small synagogues in looking for ways to combine resources to create full-time or three quarters-time jobs out of several positions, in order retain good clergy and create a more seamless community.
"We don’t want to be a revolving door for clergy, and don’t want to always hire interns, who graduate and move on. We are looking for the best way to use the resources we have, combine jobs, combine money and get one person who will have more of an incentive to come and stay," said Rebecca Yazel, president of TBS.
The most common way to do this appears to be a combination of part-time clergy and part-time educational director. For the last nine years, Hebrew College in Newton has anticipated this need and positioned itself to educate cantors for this possibility.
Cantor Brian Mayer, dean of the school of Jewish music at Hebrew College and cantor of Temple Emanu-El in Providence, said, "We were looking ahead and we thought that this would be more common, and it turns out we were right."
If fact, Mayer notes that the trend to combine the cantor and educator role may have accelerated with the downturn in the economy, coupled with changes in demographics.
"It is not a secret that ranks of synagogues are getting thinner. Members are not being replaced in New England at the same rate they are disappearing," Mayer said.
The trend is putting pressure on synagogues to restructure and reevaluate how they hire professionals. Many synagogue leaders see this as a financial decision, as well as a culture shift.
"In the previous model, the rabbinate and the religious school existed in two separate silos, but there is a trend all over the country to integrate the two," said Rabbi Avi Poupko of Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport.
Synagogues want to educate the family the same way they educate the preschoolers and the children in religious school and there are so many reasons for the rabbi to be more intimately involved, he added.
Poupko started as a part-time rabbi in Newburyport 20 months ago, and last year also assumed responsibility for the religious school as it moved from Sunday to Shabbat. He recently renewed his contract for five more years, now as a three quarters-job with responsibilities for spiritual leadership, as well as education. Jodi Coburn, a board member at TBS, explained that the board evaluated its staffing with respect to the reality that they cannot afford a full-time cantor.
"We decided that we want the cantor involved in education from day one, and that the cantor/educator person is an integral part of education right from the get-go, deciding on curriculum as well as things like attendance policy and discipline," Coburn said.
Under this model, the cantor is not just the person who sings at the service and meets with children before their bar or bat mitzvah, but a person intimately involved in the whole spiritual life from an early age. Essentially, it was a change in philosophy, she said.
Mayer explained that a synagogue can reap benefits by combining the positions of cantor and educator because of the natural overlaps in the jobs, and because it can help to attract a talented person who is solely devoted to the community.
"When I am full-time and fully devoted to a place and fortunate enough to be a good match, I stay. I become a part of their lives. They become a part of mine. When talking about community and stability in the Jewish world, that’s where it’s at," Mayer said.
Cantor Robert Scherr, director of placement and human resources for the Cantor’s Assembly, also noted that being a part-time member of the clergy with another part-time job elsewhere presents logistical problems. "It’s hard to say ‘I don’t work today,’ when there is a lifecycle event such as a funeral," Scherr said. The educational programs for cantors are rising to the occasion by preparing them for the reality of the job market. The Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as Hebrew College, have curricula to prepare cantors for these roles.
"Rather than bemoaning it, we are preparing students to fulfill that role for the community," said Scherr, who is also the Jewish chaplain at Williams College and chazzan emeritus at Temple Israel in Natick.
Many synagogue leaders see this as a financial decision, as well as a culture shift.