Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

No matter how qualified I am, for one reason or another I only work part-time. Actually, my picture should appear under the word “part-time” in some dictionary: last Fall I held four part-time jobs; this Fall, only two, although I still hope to get additional income somehow. With my many jobs, I can’t say I could survive on my own without my spouse’s income. And as you know, “part-time” also means “without benefits.”

Believe me, I respect my employers’ choices. These are hard times. Furthermore, I work in a field particularly prone to part-timeness (I should definitely register this word). I wear many hats, but they all are very small: I am a musician, a hazzan, a church organist, and a teacher. I could go on and on about the social consequences of a poor job market but, instead –and risking to sound bitter about my own situation– I want to focus on the role of part-time clergy.

A quick look at sites like JewishJobs.com shows two new realities: first, with so many schools and so few pulpits, there are very few jobs for rabbis and even less for cantors; second, almost all of these positions are part-time. As in the case of organist jobs, cantorial job descriptions are often astonishingly detailed and demanding. Eventually, you will be in charge of Tot Shabbat services, leading Kabbalat Shabbat and Shaharit Shabbat prayers, chanting Torah and Haftarah, maybe directing a choir, teaching benei mitzvah, and of course being available for funerals and weddings, whenever, wherever. They may insist that you need a masters degree, an ordination, and even police clearances. Of course, in theory you will be doing all of that in… 5 to 10 hours a week. There is no mention whatsoever to preparation time.

It is unclear how do they figure out this number of hours, but something tells me this is the exact amount of time they usually get to see you working. It is like the old joke: what does the rabbi do when she is not writing her sermon? Upfront, most synagogues will not even revise your job application if you are not local. After all, who will ever move across country for a 1K salary with no benefits and no relocation money?

The trend that had long affected hazzanim is quickly spreading to rabbis with the aggravating factor that cantors are more dispensable and, confronted with the choice, it is seemly better for a synagogue to have a rabbi than a cantor. Some rabbinical associations like RRA insist that half-time working doesn’t mean to work “only” every Friday and Saturday, but rather to work every other Shabbat. It is not clear if congregations are getting the hint… or just hiring people who are willing to work more for less. I can name half a dozen of enthusiastic young rabbis in my own area who work full time for a part-time salary, maybe in the hopes that the shul will eventually grow, but often just out of the goodness of their heart.

Given the situation, the role of sheliach tsibbur is often left in the hands of well-intentioned but poorly prepared soloists. A “real” cantor, however, is much more than a voice: a hazzan is a both shatz and a Torah teacher; sometimes a preserver of centuries-old musical traditions and sometimes the person who introduces you to new music and new forms of worship. A hazzan will not only rote-repeat some nusach: s/he will teach you the why and the how of our prayers, and will instruct you in ritual halakhah. Often, the cantor is –much like a rabbi– in a role of pastoral care giver, somebody who is there at your simchas and when you are mourning.

To me, the problem is of an ethical nature. No matter how hard he or she works, you will probably only see your cantor on Shabbat and holidays (assuming that you go to shul on a weekly basis which, unfortunately, is not so common). Almost a 100% of cantorial and rabbinical positions will look part-time to some people, because such is human nature. Judaism, however, teaches us to honor our teachers and Torah scholars. It also commands us to be fair with our employees and to not retain their salary.

With all my love, with all my respect and understanding for your present synagogue’s economic struggle, next time you are involved in writing a job description for your shul’s new cantor or rabbi, please ask yourself if it is realistic, and specially if the balance between demands and compensation is actually coherent with your Jewish values. Ask yourself if the future of Judaism isn’t worth an extra effort to sustain those who teach us Torah day after day.

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Comments on: "Fallacies of part-time jobs: a hopefully constructive perspective" (2)

  1. Dear Manel,
    How wonderful to find your blog. I am so grateful that you have written so cogently on this subject. As a female hazzan, I thought that being called “part time” when my job description involved much of the above an required my being at synagogue 5 to 6 days a week was a function of discrimination against women. Now I understand how universal it is. I agree that Judaism is facing a crisis today, with much of the wisdom and teachings it holds, which must be lived, not only studied, may be permanently lost. Personally, I am not asking to be so richly compensated as to be guilty of living a materialistic life, but only to make a basic living, with a roof over my family’s head and enough to buy food and basic clothing, and of course to have access to health care. But I think we must also not lose sight of our historic Jewish vision of caring for all the people of our society, and so the need to continue to work diligently for universal health care and a social safety net for all the people of our society.
    I highly reccommend to all the excellent speech by Chris Hedges on the “Death of the Progressive Class” available on http://www.alternativeradio.org. Jews used to be leaders in “progressive values”, but I wonder now. . . .

    • Thanks for your comment and for the link. Really interesting! Talking about cantors and rabbis, I am pretty sure that nobody is here for the money. There are lots of better paying careers out there. However, some people assume that having this vocation means that you are ascetic and abnegated, living an impossibly austere life of self-denial. Maybe the image of Christian missionaries (or Lubavitch shluchim) has permeated the way Jews see their clergy. On the other hand, I agree with you that the Jewish community is losing sight of some of its distinctive values, not only the mitzvah of taking care of our teachers, but also other important matters of Tikkun Olam (social equality, immigration, hunger, etc.). It is very sad to realize that foreigners, working class people, or mix-race individuals, are frowned upon at some shuls. We may be forgetting that not so long ago most of us feel in these categories. But that’s another story…

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