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Singing a new song

Today’s cantors are asked to provide much more than operatic voicesto modern Jewish congregations

Shortly after he became the part-time rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Marlborough a year and a half ago, Scott Sokol was talking with a congregant at a synagogue event when he heard a woman behind him say, “rabbi, rabbi, rabbi.”

After a few moments, it dawned on him that he was the one she was addressing. “I’m sorry, that’s me,” he recalled telling her. “I’m so used to being addressed as cantor.”

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Band members L-R Steve Justin, Maestro Stan Schertzer, and Gerry Rollock perform with Cantor Jodi Schechtman during a Shabbat Unplugged service at Temple Beth Am in Framingham.

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It is no wonder Sokol was confused. He became a rabbi after many years as the clergy member who sings solo and with the congregation at Jewish services.

Today, Sokol remains part-time cantor at Temple Beth Shalom in Framingham. His day job is director of the Metrowest Jewish Day School. Before that he was the founding dean of Hebrew College’s pioneering cantor-educator program in Newton Centre. And before that he was a pediatric neuropsychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While few wear as many hats (or yarmulkes) as Sokol, cantors today must possess more than just a melodious voice to suit the needs and budgets of 21st-century congregations.

In response to the changing role of cantors, theological schools are rethinking how they train them. Hebrew College’s cantorial program, which at its peak had about 20 students, had no fresh enrollees this fall. It will not seek new students for next fall as it undertakes a review of the

program’s curriculum and marketing. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the leading cantorial program in the Conservative movement, recently completed a similar review of its cantorial program after experiencing a drop in applicants.

‘The rabbinate has a 2,000-year-old tradition of good PR . . . you don’t need a rabbi to do a lot of things in Judaism.’

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Until a half century ago, large synagogues prided themselves on cantors of operatic stature.

“Cantors were hired as a voice — this glorious, glorious voice that would lend grandeur and majesty to services,” said Cantor Jodi M. Schechtman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Framingham. But while a famous New York City cantor, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, filled Symphony Hall last spring in a concert with violinist Itzhak Perlman, worshipers today want synagogue services where they can get in on the act.

Schechtman is one of about a dozen cantors nationwide who double as the religious leader of a Reform synagogue. But she is representative of a trend that is seeing smaller synagogues employing just one full-time clergy member.

When she arrived at Temple Beth Am after her ordination 26 years ago, she envisioned much more than a musical role.

“I didn’t like when people just relegated me to being the synagogue musician,” she said. “In fact, I had training in many other areas in education and in pastoral counseling.”

The additional training helped win her the job at Beth Am, which had originally been looking for an assistant rabbi. Until then, the synagogue had relied on part-time cantorial soloists. Its then-rabbi, Donald M. Splansky, convinced his congregation that with Schechtman they would get both a singer and a clergy member capable of performing rabbinical duties.

After Splansky retired, the congregation hired a young rabbi, hoping he would attract younger families and reverse a decline in membership. When his three-year contract was up in 2010, the congregants decided they could only afford one clergy member. They stuck with the woman who had been serving them for two decades. Initially, a few members left because they felt a rabbi to be essential. Any lingering doubts vanished after Schechtman presided over High Holy Days services, she said, adding that since then membership has held steady at 375 families.

With a guitar at hand, Schechtman makes music a large part of services. A monthly “unplugged” service features a band. Another monthly service features the temple’s children’s choir.

Generally, if congregations can afford only one clergy member, they go with a rabbi.

“The rabbinate has a 2,000-year-old tradition of good PR,” Sokol said, but “you don’t need a rabbi to do a lot of things in Judaism.”

Sokol, a self-confessed education junkie, was already studying for the rabbinate two years ago when, as cantor at Temple Beth Shalom, he was asked to serve as its spiritual leader while Rabbi Laurence Bazer was deployed to Afghanistan as a National Guard chaplain. After Bazer returned, Sokol continued as part-time cantor at Beth Shalom, and in June 2012 added the job of part-time rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Marlborough.

His role at Emanuel is primarily behind the scenes, with the cantor, Linda Sue Sohn, more in the spotlight. “I’m serving as cantor in my other congregation, while she’s reading my sermons,” Sokol said.

After teaching and conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music, Randall Schloss wanted to be more than just a performer. Schloss is finding that variety as cantor at Temple Ohabei Shalom , a Reform synagogue in Brookline.

“Every day is incredibly different,” Schloss said. “The rabbi and I share a lot of the typical duties. We both do pastoral counseling, and we both officiate at weddings and funerals and other life-cycle events. We both do teaching.”

Schloss still has had time to put his musical stamp on the synagogue, launching its annual music and worship benefit concert, which in its seven years has ranged from the sounds of Hollywood to the immigrant experience.

While many synagogues have gone from a full-time to a part-time cantor, Temple Aliyah, a 430-family Conservative synagogue in Needham, did just the opposite in 2008 when it hired Gaston Bogomolni . Known as Cantor G, he has made it his life’s mission to teach prayer and a love of Judaism through music.

He can be found at the pulpit or amid congregants on the sanctuary floor; captivating children at the Jewish Community Center; serving as a prayer leader at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston; and teaching songs at Jewish summer camp.

“I want to uplift people, and I want people to uplift me,” Bogomolni said.

But there is method to his energy, one rooted in his childhood in Argentina. Bogomolni describes himself as “observant by choice.” Raised in a nonreligious household, he was enthralled by his synagogue’s rousing mix of Argentinean, Israeli, and Old World sounds.

As cantor, Bogomolni said, he also sees his role as community builder, and points to the success of the temple’s production last spring of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which brought together a cast and crew of 100 ranging from a 3-year-old to a 65-year-old theater professional. Bogomolni said he plans to mount a show every other year.

Diverse musical influences are also evident at Temple Emanuel in Newton, which with 1,200 families is the largest Conservative synagogue in Boston’s western suburbs. Before Elias Rosemberg arrived as cantor seven years ago, the Friday evening service drew perhaps three dozen worshipers. Along with Michele Robinson — a gifted singer and the younger of the temple’s two rabbis — Rosemberg launched a second evening service, Shabbat Alive!, that is 90 percent music and regularly draws 200 people. He sets the prayers to Latin American, Sephardic, and Middle Eastern melodies, and includes songs by contemporary American composers. Each week an adult and a teen, drawn from a group of 20 congregants Rosemberg has trained, join the clergy in leading the service.

While the future may find the line between rabbi and cantor increasingly blurred and the music of the synagogue more eclectic, all the clergy interviewed agreed that Judaism must preserve the traditional foundation of liturgical music.

“I was taught that one of the neat things about this whole body of musical literature is that you can wake up, like Rip Van Winkle, and walk into a synagogue and know what date it is, all based on what’s happening musically,” said Sokol. “You can know if there’s a circumcision in the congregation that day, because of the motifs the cantors are using.”

The neuropsychologist/cantor/rabbi noted the link between music and memory.

“When I do a particular melody that I learned as a kid,” Sokol said, “I’m associating something from one part of my life to another part of my life.”

On a larger scale, music connects Jews across the centuries.

“There’s a way to innovate within a framework,” Sokol said. “That’s what the trained cantorate is all about.”

Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.
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