Synagogue Music in the Modern Era

Changes are taking place in the leadership, participation, melodies, and instruments that are found in the synagogue.

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The Conservative movement lagged somewhat behind the popular tendency to insert contemporary songs and styles into the liturgy. The sanctuaries where adults worshiped tended to hold fast to a traditional body of music taught to cantorial students at the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary and/or gathered in Zamru Lo. Members of the movement's United Synagogue Youth groups and campers and staff at Conservative Ramah Camps eagerly adopted popular tunes into their own youth services, but the hegemony of the Conservative cantorate rejected these innovations as "camp songs." Moreover, the music of Israel was embraced in settings throughout the Conservative community: Ramah summer camps, Solomon Schechter Day Schools, adult education programs, and beyond. That broad and seemingly never-ending font of new material was largely a distraction from and a disincentive to the creation of new music from within the movement's ranks.

Implied pressure placed on Conservative cantors by the popularity of "alternative" music being utilized among youth groups and in havurot (often breakaways from the more traditional services conducted in Conservative synagogues) led to a gradual willingness of Conservative cantors and their congregations to experiment with the music of the synagogue. Some Conservative synagogues installed organs in their sanctuaries and occasionally used other instruments as well. The ordination of female cantors in 1987 brought dramatically new voices to the Conservative synagogue, and many of these women, whose presence itself represented a major change, were more inclined to welcome innovation into the service.

The B'nai Jeshurun Phenomenon

The real watershed in congregational singing came, though, with the success of one Conservative synagogue on New York's Upper West Side. B'nai Jeshurun, or "BJ" as it is affectionately known to its members (and derogatorily scorned by its detractors), gained wide-spread popular appeal during the tenure of Rabbi Michael Meyer (1985-1993) and continues now under the leadership of Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, and Hazzan Ari Priven. It attracted hundreds of worshipers to regular services when it began adopting a family-friendly attitude and a repertoire of reverent but upbeat, new melodies (as well as "refurbished" versions of older tunes) that welcomed and embraced the Sabbath with fervent singing.

The contrast between the numbers of BJ attendees over-flowing onto Manhattan's sidewalks and the number of empty pews in most other "mainstream" Conservative synagogues was directly attributed to B'nai Jeshurun's music. Demand from within and outside the congregation inspired the synagogue's leadership to record its melodies as teaching tools and as models for others to follow.

As the 21st century dawns, the future course of American synagogue music is not clear. Some traditionalists may decry the continuing preference for community singing--of any kind of music--over the preservation of nusahas the final "nail in the coffin" of Jewish musical continuity. For many, the "usurpation" of the role of cantor/ hazzanby bar mitzvah celebrants and lay precentors appears to signal an ironic return to the anarchy of the early nineteenth century and a tragic surrendering of musical and professional ritual standards.

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.