Hebrew College’s revamped cantor program taps into new trend

Audrey Klein, a Hebrew College cantorial student, is accompanied by teacher Amy Lieberman.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Audrey Klein, a Hebrew College cantorial student, is accompanied by teacher Amy Lieberman.

NEWTON — As he discussed Hebrew College’s pioneering plans to reboot its cantorial program, Rabbi Daniel L. Lehmann several times digressed to marvel at the success of the Pentecostal megachurch Hillsong.

That day’s New York Times had reported how Hillsong had burst out of Australia with Christian folk rock that was packing arenas and topping the charts with album sales.

“I think the Jewish congregations are going to take a cue from the Christian ones,” said Lehmann, who is president of the college, on Herrick Road in Newton Centre. “Music is becoming a critical factor in what’s opening up, especially younger Jews, to meaningful prayer experiences.”


By condensing its training program from five years to three and by tapping into innovative trends in Jewish music, the college hopes to become a national leader in training the next generation of cantors, which lead congregations in song, prepare students for bar and bat mitzvahs, and officiate at milestone life events.

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In recent decades, their role has increasingly overlapped with that of the rabbi, especially as synagogues have economized by having only religious leader.

The college’s revamped program, which starts next fall, sets the stage for another major change still in the works: a five-year program that would lead to both rabbinical and cantorial ordination.

Hebrew College, which serves all streams of Judaism, offers a variety of degree and certificate programs for Jewish professionals, as well as adult and youth enrichment courses. It is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Besides cutting overall tuition by about 30 percent, the condensed program will give students a head start on their careers. During their first year on the job, graduates will be mentored by Hebrew College faculty.


“The program is now law school length, which no other program has figured out how to do,” said Cantor Brian Mayer, dean of the college’s School of Jewish Music.

Mayer said the key factor in making it work will be “deeply intense” eight-week summer programs after the first year and again after the second. Mayer likened them to the immersion experience of music camps.

“It’s tapping into that part of the brain where if you’re doing it every day and have no real distractions, you accelerate so much more quickly,” he said. “So if you’re in the shower in the morning, it’s there. It’s with you while you’re eating your meals.”

The summer studies will include multiple-day workshops led by “outside superstars,” who will offer both expertise and exposure to a wide range of Jewish musical movements, Mayer said.

While still grounded in traditional material, the revised program will provide greater emphasis on contemporary styles, according to Mayer.


“We’re beyond leading edge,” he said.

As an example, he noted that the college plans to bring in Mitch Gordon, who combines percussion and prayer.

“He’s going to teach our students how to drum for a Jewish context, chanting and drumming together,” Mayer said. The drumming can be improvised or scripted, on an actual instrument or the back of a pew.

“Even if you’re not musical, you know how to tap on something, and you can pick up a rhythm and feel like you’re part of what’s going on,” he said.

The latest sounds of the synagogue include echoes of the 18th century with the revival of niggun — soulful, even mystical, Hasidic melodies without words. The curriculum also includes modern settings of ancient liturgical poetry known as piyyut.

“We want to be a place where [students] have an opportunity to dive into some of most creative, innovative stuff going on now,” Lehmann said.

The role of the cantor has changed dramatically over the past half century. Before World War II, prosperous synagogues prided themselves on cantors with operatic-quality voices. Today’s congregations want cantors who bring everyone into the act. Guitar-playing singer-songwriters such as Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman have invigorated the liturgical repertoire by bringing folk stylings to ancient and Hasidic songs, many of which are performed both in English and Hebrew.

In recent years, Jewish musical worship has focused much more on “forms that embrace joy,” Mayer said, compared with “what we think of from the previous generations when it was about crying, about gut-wrenching kinds of memories from the old country.”

The revamped program will retain a key element that has set the college’s cantorial school apart since its inception. Besides receiving ordination, graduates will be awarded a master’s degree in Jewish education. First-year cantorial students, as before, will take many of the same classes as rabbinical students. Compared with other cantorial schools, Mayer said, Hebrew College requires a deeper knowledge of Hebrew and centuries-old Jewish learning.

Lehmann noted that this additional background expands opportunities for its graduates, qualifying them to lead synagogue religious education programs and head Jewish day schools.

Of the 22 cantors ordained over the past eight years, all are employed except for two who chose to be stay-at-home mothers, Mayer said. He noted that some have obtained plum positions that typically would go to veteran cantors, serving synagogues of 500-plus families.

Besides its emphasis on versatility, Hebrew College has prided itself on the quality of its vocal training. Typically, cantorial programs send students off campus for private lessons. Hebrew College provides voice lessons from a staff that includes Cantor Lynn Torgove, a veteran classical soloist and opera teacher.

Hebrew College had stopped accepting cantorial students the past two years as it looked at how to revamp the program. It consulted with cantors and cantor/rabbis, both locally and nationwide. Each was asked to envision the ideal cantorial program.

The college, which will be holding an open house for the cantorial program in November, aims to enroll five students its first year, which is in line with that of other cantorial schools. “If we have 15 to 20 students in a three-year program, we’ll be thrilled,” Mayer said.

Rabbi/Cantor Scott Sokol, who founded Hebrew College’s cantorial school a decade ago and now is head of MetroWest Jewish Day School, said that while condensing the program would be a challenge, “if anyone can do it, they can.”

Meanwhile, this year’s incoming rabbinical class, numbering 18, is the largest yet at the college. It’s also the largest of all of the non-Orthodox programs, according to Lehmann.

Contact Steve Maas at stevenmaas@comcast.net.