An Historic First: Ordaining Our Cantors

Next month may mark the 40th anniversary of women in the American rabbinate, but another historic event is taking place this weekend: On Sunday, six graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will make history when they become the first class of cantorial students to be ordained rather than invested. JTA covers it in a story this week titled “What’s in a word? For ‘ordained’ rather than ‘invested’ cantors, a lot.”

40 Years of Women on the BimahWhat’s the difference between investiture and ordination?

Plenty, say officials at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which has announced that for the first time since establishing its cantorial school in 1948, it will ordain rather than invest its graduating class of cantors.

Six graduates will be ordained Sunday in ceremonies at Temple Emanu-El in New York.

The change has been several years in the making. Reform movement officials say it both recognizes the elevated role that cantors have in modern times and eliminates some barriers they have faced in their clergy work.

One thing this story doesn’t do is speak with any of the students who will be among the first to be ordained. Michelle Rubel, one of the six who will become an ordained cantor this weekend, is a NFTY and Kutz Camp alumna who has served as a cantorial intern at Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in Washington Heights, N.Y. On being a part of the first class of ordained cantors, Rubel writes,

Our ordination as cantors, in my opinion, truly reflects the professional, spiritual, and scholarly work we will be undertaking in our future congregations. Over the last five years, my classmates and I have engaged in rigorous study, not only in the realm of sacred music, but in sacred text and the sacred work of building congregational communities. We have enriched our studies not only in synagogues, but in hospitals, in summer camps, in non-profit organizations, and beyond. I feel honored to have been a part of this dedicated, talented and passionate class. I feel proud that the work of our class represents the changing vision for the role of the Cantor. And I feel a great sense of humility and gratitude being a part of this historic moment in the history of the American Cantorate.

Rubel will be ordained this weekend in New York City along with fellow cantorial students Tracy Fishbein, Victoria Glikin, Luke Hawley, Julia Katz, and Elana Rosen-Brown. A hearty mazel tov to all of them!

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Kate Bigam

About Kate Bigam

Kate Bigam is the URJ's Social Media and Community Manager. Prior to this, she served as a Congregational Representative for the URJ's East District and at the Religious Action Center as Press Secretary and as an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Kate resides in Northeast Ohio.

4 Responses to “An Historic First: Ordaining Our Cantors”

  1. avatar
    Alan Herzlin, URJ Board member Reply May 3, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    This is surely a historic and most welcome advancement for our professionals, our Reform Movement, our congregations and our nation. We can expect the usual negativity and scoffing attitude of our friends to the “right,” but that is of little consequence. I know that the cantor of my congregation is thrilled by this news.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    Ultimately, the issue is not whether cantors are invested or ordained, but whether they are viewed as musicians or as clergy.

    I don’t think the attitudes of the Orthodox are germane — their problem is not ordination vs. investiture but kol isha, the voice of a woman. The Conservative movement already has women in cantorial roles, but I don’t know what they call the concluding process.

    But the real elephant in the corner is not the nature of the cantor’s training, nor what we call the qualifying ceremony, but the still strong resistance in many quarters to cantors who are other than tenors or baritones. Our movement has clearly gotten over any hang-up about woman rabbis, but woman cantors are another story.

  3. avatar
    Cantor Penny Kessler Reply May 3, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Larry, as a “woman cantor,” I respectfully disagree with the nature of your “real elephant.” Our movement has embraced women as Cantors/k’lei kodesh. Women are represented quite well within the ranks of the American Conference of Cantors, the professional organization of the Reform Cantorate.

    Just as several dozen years ago the idea of a soprano’s voice on the bimah was unusual, today there are several generations of Reform Jews who have no idea that a *man* can be a cantor.

    To be frank, cantors will no longer face even the most subtle of challenges of “musician or clergy” when knowledgeable Reform Jews such as yourself no longer allow this to be an issue. I think it’s high time to let it go, and being able to respond, “I was *ordained* at HUC-JIR will certainly make an impact.

  4. Larry Kaufman

    Our Movement has indeed embraced women as cantors and cantors as k’lei kodesh — and clearly women have embraced the cantorate as a career, as evidenced by the demographics of the new group of cantorial ordinees. Yes, our leadership, at the congregational level, have not made this an issue. (I was chair of the Worship Committee that brought the first woman cantor, in fact the first woman Jewish clergy, to Chicago.)

    But people who remember when only men were cantors are not necessarily ready to adjust their expectations about synagogue music and who should perform it. I heard a lot of comment from amcha, the Jews in the pews, when our congregation lost our (woman) cantor — who brought a beautiful voice and a spiritual elegance to our services — that folks hoped her successor would be a man.

    The generation that knew only men as cantors is dying out, and then the elephant will leave the corner — but for now, like it or not, that sensibility still exists. I don’t say this is an issue the ACC needs to confront, but it is not one they should be denial about.

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