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Amid financial shortfalls and a Conservative crisis, the Jewish Theological Seminary will shutter its cantorial school

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The Jewish Theological Seminary. (Steve and Sara Emry; some rights reserved.)

As part of a major restructuring effort, the Jewish Theological Seminary announced last week that its cantorial school, traditionally separate from the rabbinical school, will be integrated into the rabbinical school. Henry Rosenblum, the well-regarded dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School, will be laid off. The move provoked an outcry from the seminary’s cantorial students, who fear that the shift will mean an end to the automony that they and their school previously enjoyed.

The shift comes at a delicate time for the institution and for the Conservative movement, for which it serves as spiritual incubator and intellectual home. The school is reportedly millions of dollars in debt. At the same time, the once-vibrant movement has seen a steady shrinking of its membership rolls and a parallel diminution in what sets it apart from Judaism’s Reform movement.

These tensions come to the fore in the institution of the cantorate. In the immediate postwar years, most Reform and Conservative congregations boasted a charismatic, operatic cantor, who sometimes even eclipsed the rabbi. Reform Judaism began a move away from this model toward more participatory services in the 1960s and ’70s. The Conservative movement has been caught in something of a bind: while it has more recently embraced the shift in an effort to lure a younger audience, doing so has served to further blur the line that divided it from the Reform movement.

On Monday afternoon, 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. While students complained about a lack of institutional transparency, Eisen reassured the assembly that the cantorial school would not be closing. Monday’s meeting may be the only student-administration faceoff in recent memory in which a polite student body prepared for the face-off with a “Solidarity Mincha,” or afternoon prayer service, and in which student leaders requested that the chancellor not only promise to give students more decision-making power, but that he ratify that promise by signing a covenant, or brit.

The reorganization did not come as a complete surprise. Faculty, if not yet students, got a whiff last year that big changes were ahead in the cantorial school. Last spring, the seminary’s board hired Jack Ukeles, a management consultant who often works with Jewish organizations, to develop a strategic plan for revamping the institution. The plan that Ukeles drafted a few months later advised shutting down the cantorial school altogether. Chancellor Eisen has stated repeatedly that he never even considered implementing that suggestion—and Provost Alan Cooper told Tablet Magazine that the changes now being announced have nothing to do with Ukeles’s report—but rumors nevertheless began to circulate.

“Everyone jumped to the worst possible conclusions after it came out,” said Alberto Mizrahi, a Miller School alumnus who is now a cantor at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago and a frequent music coach at his alma mater. “Everyone has something to say: Are we going to close the school? Are we going to merge with Hebrew Union College?”
There’s no truth to the latter rumor either, the administration says, though cantorial students at JTS and HUC, the Reform movement seminary, last year began sharing some classes on musical technique.

While the faculty’s worst fears were not realized, they were reactivated Friday afternoon when students and professors were informed via an email from Eisen that “the position of dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School will no longer be part of the academic structure of JTS.” He further explained that the previously autonomous cantorial school will, as of this summer, fall under the same umbrella as the seminary’s larger rabbinical school, and will be supervised by the rabbinical school’s dean, Danny Nevins. It also announced, less controversially, that JTS’s graduate and undergraduate schools of academic Jewish studies will soon share a dean as well.

Shortly after the email was sent, Shabbat began, and for a strange 24 hours, everyone on the religiously observant campus was at least officially at rest. Once the Sabbath ended, though, cantorial students began feverishly posting alarmed status updates on their Facebook pages: one student was “very worried about the future of the North American Cantorate”; another ominously referenced the upcoming meeting with Eisen: “Crisis at JTS Cantorial School. Monday is the Day of Judgment.” Meanwhile, Cooper sent a memo that attempted to dispel the rumors about the cantorial school closing, merging with HUC, or being taken over by the rabbinical school. Though students say their worst fears have subsided, they are still—as student representatives said at Monday’s meeting—worried about being left out of the process, and devastated about the loss of their dean.

“JTS has always been the place for people who sought to maintain traditional nusach [musical style] in the service—to move forward and add contemporary music as well, but also to preserve some of the great pieces we have from the golden age of hazzanut [cantorial performance] when cantors were really something,” said Rebecca Platt, a second-year cantorial student. “Now I’m concerned about whether we’re going to be able to maintain that, without Henry and without a very autonomous program.”

The economic logic of the move goes beyond JTS’s budget deficit, said Andy Shugerman, a recent graduate of the JTS rabbinical school who now runs educational programs for the seminary in Florida and the South. Some small synagogues are cutting costs by hiring just one spiritual leader instead of a rabbi and a cantor. By making the boundary between rabbinic and cantorial training more fluid—teaching rabbis to lead a congregation in prayer and training cantors more extensively in halacha—JTS hopes it can make its alumni more marketable at a particularly vulnerable time.

The softening of that boundary could be a silver lining of Eisen’s plan, cantorial students said, and not just because of the dismal job market. Historically, relationships between rabbis and cantors have been rocky—JTS itself didn’t allow cantors to sleep in its dorms, which were for rabbinical students only, until the 1970s. “What might finally start happening is bringing together the rabbinical and cantorial schools, and that might be great,” said Yakov Hadash, a fourth-year cantorial student and the president of the Miller School’s student organization.

Eisen and Cooper have publicly framed the restructuring of the cantorial school as part of a philosophical shift toward a future model of the Conservative movement, a demonstration of just how far the pendulum has swung in Conservative circles away from traditional hazzanut. But outside the JTS administration, even those sympathetic to the plan see it as primarily an economic decision. “The school is in major financial trouble, and Henry Rosenblum, who is an old and dear friend of mine, is one of the statistics that happens in this world,” Alberto Mizrahi said.

It’s not yet known who will be hired as the new cantorial school director—a position that will encompass some duties of the erstwhile cantorial school dean but will be subsidiary to the rabbinical dean—and how long a search for that person will take place. Students in their first few years of the five-year cantorial program, Hadash said, are concerned about whether their academic lives will be thrown out of whack if they are temporarily leaderless—and that, if they don’t like the yet-to-be-appointed director, things might not improve.

Most of all, though, students are mourning Rosenblum’s departure; he held his position for 12 years and had, by all accounts, been an important mentor, advocate, and emotional support system for JTS students both in an out of the cantorial school. Said Platt, “Our hearts are collectively a little broken.”

With additional reporting by Jenny Merkin.

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Beth Socol says:

Henry is a gifted cantor, and even more importantly, a terrific teacher and a mensch. This is the Seminary’s loss!

Beth Socol
Greensboro, NC

Would you please change the alarmist headline — “JTS announces plan to shutter its cantorial school” (!) — which is unsupported by this article, which is about an administrative restructuring, not a “shuttering”! I am very concerned about the future of the JTS Cantorial School and not pleased by this news, but it should at least be reported accurately.

The Cantorial school does not even *have* shutters. Agree with RS, it is irresponsible to use this language in the title of the article. There’s quite enough pessimism and alarmist rhetoric about the school and the Movement without the help of the press, it does nothing to help the situation. It only aggravates the lack of confidence which, if unchecked, will ultimately lead to the demise of this movement. A movement which, incidentally, fills a crucial niche in the Jewish world for the modern observant and intellectually honest Jew. We are differentiated from Reform by more than merely the style of our services, there is a huge philosophical distinction. This unfortunate situation does not have to be part of a general downward trend, and I wish people would stop putting nails in a coffin that doesn’t exist.

Reform Judaism began a move away from this model toward more participatory services in the 1960s and ’70s. The Conservative movement has been caught in something of a bind: while it has more recently embraced the shift in an effort to lure a younger audience, doing so has served to further blur the line that divided it from the Reform movement.
[...]
“JTS has always been the place for people who sought to maintain traditional nusach [musical style] in the service—to move forward and add contemporary music as well, but also to preserve some of the great pieces we have from the golden age of hazzanut [cantorial performance] when cantors were really something,” said Rebecca Platt, a second-year cantorial student.

The cantors are obfuscating again. Nusach and hazzanut are not the same thing, and the differences between cantorial and non-cantorial styles are completely orthogonal to the differences between the denominations.

invisible_hand says:

as a JTS grad myself, i was surprised to hear the news, and i am saddened for what is happening to cantor rosenblum, a man i regard highly.

however, on reflection, i think that this can be a good thing.

for good or ill, the american religious world is structured similar to a market, and, simply speaking, there is not a very high demand for cantors. cantorial graduates have been having a hard time procuring employment after ordination. i think a merging of the cantorial school will serve the students well, in that they will (hopefully) be educated as cantor-hybrids, a much more marketable skill.
They will be trained in the art of leading services (my critique of the aesthetics of JTS’ cantorial school here beyond the point) as well as other important fields, such as formal and informal education, social work, etc. pure cantors are not highly demanded (my opinion of that is again beyond the point), and a cantor who can provide the synagogue with a range of services will be much more hirable.

lastly, JTS as an institution is one that is conservative in a number of ways beyond its denominational affiliation. it is one that is often loath to change. i think an administrative shake-up like this can hopefully make the school shake off the dust and arise.

i have only the best of wishes for the cantorial students as well as their erstwhile dean. instead of focussing on institutional forms, which only mean as much as the good they are doing, let us look towards the opportunities provided by an unknown future.

Jeremy Swerling says:

Speaking as the congregant of a Conservative synagogue, my take is that this is the formalization of an ongoing institutional down-grading of the position of Hazzan in Conservative synagogues. The article frequently references “participatory” as a substitue and in contrast to traditional Hazzanut. This is blatantly false. Yes, the traditional Hazzan has his/her moments of soloistic leadership. But, by and large, the Conservative service is demonstrably participatory and the suggestion that Rabbis or lay people can adequately replace a trained Hazzan will only result in less participation from the congregation, not more. Witness the results at many Reform congregations without professional Hazzans. All the attacks on traditional Hazzanut and the so called “old music” are nothing more than a poor scapegoat for a serious dearth of spirituality among our community. Rabbis and institutional leaders would do well to address their attention to this spiritual deficit instead of relying solely on Torah study to inspire. We need more emphasis on spirituality instead of less professional emphasis on congregational prayer. At the end of the day, people come to shul to pray, first and foremost.

Lee Smith says:

Am I the only one who finds it strange that the consultant, Mr. Ukeles, who is apparently playing a key role in reorganization of JTS, and hence the future of the Conservative movement, recommended shutting down the Cantorial School. What criteria was he using and what are his other recommendations like? Who is he to play such an important role in Conservative Judaism? As far as the future , I fear that this move may result in further deterioration of the quality of Conservative Judaism — a movement that is already having a hard time justifying its existence. I do however think it’s probably a good idea for Rabbis to have more in the way of musicality and Kavanah and perhaps closer ties with Cantorial students will lead them in that direction

ravcook says:

@ Lee Smith
Full disclosure: I am a graduate of the rabbinical school and am married to a graduate of the cantorial school.

I don’t know all of the economics of the two schools, but I can imagine that the cost of a dean, secretary (at least Henry used to have one), and the faculty (which was a handful of full-time and lots of part-time hazzanim and musicians), all for around 35 students might seem like an impractical school to run. From an outsider point of view, this makes sense. What Ukeles perhaps did not understand is what it means to have a Hazzan as the leader of the school. For many years, the Cantorial School was headed by the very musically knowledgeable Rabbi Leifman.

The silver lining that I see is like the one from invisible_hand above. This can lead to a curriculum that is more squarely focused on the Conservative movement that we have today, and hopefully one that is focused on a positive future.

Yehudit says:

What broad ignorance as to the true scope and value of the service of an educated, trained cantor.

It seems like this move may result in further deterioration of the quality of Conservative Judaism, but maybe it is a good idea for Rabbis to have more in the way of musicality and Kavanah and perhaps closer ties with Cantorial students will lead them in that direction…

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Amid financial shortfalls and a Conservative crisis, the Jewish Theological Seminary will shutter its cantorial school

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