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

Posts tagged ‘Torah teachers’

Creativity as an excuse.

An apology to everybody for this time of silence: I have been wrapping up my dissertation and getting ready to defend it very soon! As I take a tiny break from higher education, I finished this post precisely about some disturbing trends in Jewish and secular education.

I was brought up in an educational system which, quite unfortunately, did not value creativity. One learned to draw by copying Freixa’s artwork to the smallest detail. One learned piano by playing Bach’s Inventions. Piano improvisation or creative drawing just was not for beginners: first you had to prove that you mastered the technique, then you’d be free to create. Far from me to sing the praises of an education that was frankly castrating, but I think that today we may have gone to the other extreme, emphasizing individual development and creativity up to a point where rules and hard-work learning are frown at. I think that this cartoon gives a good hint of what is happening:

The other day, one of my third graders was trying to play a new song on the recorder. He’s been playing for around seven months but is still unable to produce more than three basic notes. “Jacob, the left hand goes up and the right hand goes down” –I tell him. It is to no avail: Jacob answers that this is the way he plays, that it’s a lot easier than my way. “See? It works just fine!” –says little Jacob with a challenging, slightly impertinent tone of voice. I spend some minutes showing Jacob that, although his current fingering may seem to work fine for the few notes he knows now (from high C down to E), he will never be able to play lower notes just because using the wrong hand, his pinky will not be able to reach the lowest hole. We have been repeating this same dialogue for some months now and Jacob –otherwise a normal, intelligent kid– still does not change his mind. It is a phenomenon I observe very often in my music classes: in this boy’s mind, his way of doing things is as good as –if not better than– the teacher’s. Like most of my young American students, he doesn’t perceive any hierarchy between us. He sees me as a peer whose opinion can safely be ignored. As teachers, we are encouraged to let him learn at his pace, in his way, leaving nobody behind and not forcing our learning schemes on anybody.

Without any doubt, creativity and individual self-expression are values we ought to cultivate, cornerstones of personal development and education. However, they cannot be a good excuse for the lack of knowledge, for the bliss of ignorance. As my former composition teacher used to say, if you chose to ignore what the experts say, you may reach similar results –supposing that you are really lucky– , but not without having wasted a long time “reinventing the chicken soup.” Of course there are great composers that never took a class on counterpoint, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of them.

It may well be that the misuse of creativity as an excuse is a problem restricted to my area of teaching, but something tells me that it is a trend affecting not only our educational system, but also our synagogue life. Not so long ago, I was reflecting on the excessive use of creative midrash among lay leaders and even among a few rabbis and cantors. Confronted with the need of delivering a devar torah, it is always easier to come out with a creative midrash or some gematria interpretation than to ponder what Rashi and Sforno wrote about the text. The smaller our knowledge of Talmud, codes, and halachah, the bigger our recourse to creative allegories, pseudo-kabbalistic interpretations and the like.

Our tradition had always put high value on received knowledge and careful study. And yet, do we value Torah expertise today in our synagogues? We like to think that we do, but the changing reality might teach us otherwise. I have already posted a couple of times about the so-called Pediatric Synagogues, that is, shuls where absolutely everything turns around the children school and the benei mitzvah. How many shuls do you know where there is virtually no adult education? Aren’t we supposed to be a religion of lifetime learning? And yet, mysteriously, American families join a shul whenever the kids are of age and stay through the bar/bat mitzvah, only to disappear from active Jewish life soon after. Admittedly, the performance of the b. mitzvah kid looks brilliant, so nobody seems too concerned that he or she never learned Hebrew properly and just memorized a haftarah in transcription. Like in a day school, we put out beautiful displays of our kids’ works so that all parents can see it when they come for Open House night. Yes, it is true that we gave the kids all the pieces cut and marked so that  they only had to add a drop of glue, and thus learned near to nothing, but doesn’t it look dazzling?

At the same time, an increasing number of synagogues show a concerning trend when hiring a new rabbi or cantor: they essentially look for somebody who can teach haftarot to kids, say El Male in a funeral and chant a decent Kol Nidre. After all, the majority of their members will only be in shul in those very occasions. Of course, it will be a part-time job: the cantor or rabbi will only have to lead a couple services a week, teach children, and be available for funerals. What’s that? 6 to 10 hours a week? We don’t need more than that.

I wish I was exaggerating, but after almost two years of applying to jobs, it is hard for me not to reach to this conclusion: as we are losing our emphasis on lifetime education, we are also losing our reverence for clergy as our sages and teachers.  It hasn’t been too long until the creation of fast-track rabbis. There are at least a couple of rabbinical training programs in the US for people who are too busy to learn. One single Skype meeting a week, and in a year you could call yourself a rabbi, with semikhah and all. Certainly, for El Male, Kol Nidre and haftarah teaching it is probably enough, but is it enough for adult education, pastoral care, serious Jewish learning, etc? To me, this is like learning 5 songs on the violin through the Suzuki method and then printing business cards that read “John Doe, violinist.”

Now you can think that there have always been funky ordination tracks and that they are in the fringes, not representing any generalized trend. I dare to differ: the curriculum of some well-established rabbinical schools is also being changed with the pretext that they are tailoring it to the needs of a 21st century synagogue. However, this does not account for the considerable reduction of admission requirements (lower Hebrew level, if any) nor for the elimination of scholarly subjects in favor of “more spiritual” and professional courses. In these new curricula we see a lot less Talmud, less Codes and Responsa, and more creative midrash and social activism. Rabbinical seminaries are feeling the crisis and they need to keep a steady flow of incoming students if they don’t want to close their doors. They are also competing with new rabbinical programs whose requirements are clearly lower. As a result, we will have more rabbis than ever, with less knowledge of traditional texts but with lots of creativity. If a serious congregant wants to learn Gemara, the rabbi may have to refer him or her to somebody else.

The value of higher Jewish education is in question. Whenever I apply to a job, any cantorial soloist is taken on equal foot as an ordained cantor like me. What is worse, any fast-track rabbi will be given preference over my degrees, since I don’t have an “R” in front of my name. Some months ago, when I complained about this subject on this blog, I received a quite vitriolic comment that deeply saddened me. Paraphrasing the message, this is what this person told me: “I am a part-time cantorial soloist with a day job as a college teacher; I don’t feel underpaid nor underemployed at my shul; stop complaining, go back to school, get a degree and find a real job; then you’ll be able to afford this lifestyle.” The “lifestyle” referred was simply  being a cantor.

For weeks I debated with myself what to do. I didn’t hit the “approve” button and the comment wasn’t published on my blog. It just laid there, hidden in my inbox, lurking and waiting for an answer. I was very ready to write a quite bitter response to this person, maybe even publicly in the blog. Then I decided that this –hopefully well-intentioned– friend didn’t know me from Adam, and assumed I was some uneducated bum. In a way, she was a victim of the very same trend I am talking about. This cantorial soloist saw herself as equal to an ordained cantor. Since probably she had invested very little money and time in her own cantorial education, she couldn’t see a need for a fair compensation. To her, this was a hobby, and being paid at all for something you enjoy and you would do anyway is the cherry on the pie. Like many others, this reader thought that being a cantor or a rabbi was not so much of a vocation –or a ministry, as other religions say– but some “lifestyle,” an occupation that can equally be done by lay individuals in their free time. What is more alarming: she didn’t see any added value on being a clergy person, of having spent five or six years in seminary.

Today, any lay person leads services; independent havurot pride themselves on being lay-led. Don’t get me wrong: every Jew should know enough to be a sheliach tsibur. However, sometimes you need an expert that can explain the rationale of it all and take you to the next step.  The rabbinical and cantorial placement lists of all denominations are probably at the lowest they have ever been. The vast majority of these jobs are very part-time. Meanwhile, in my opinion we may be losing the reverence for our sages and experts. We are holding our little plastic flute the wrong way, we smile and say: “see? It works just fine!”

 

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Open for Me the Gates of Justice: Reconstructing Conversion.

the Shulchan Arukh, code of Jewish Law

 

One of the most concerning aspects of the future of Judaism is the undeniable fact that Jewish population is shrinking and getting older. When a Christian church’s membership decreases, they can always evangelize the neighbors or move to another part of town with more potential parishioners. When a shul is dying due to demographic changes, we often do not have these options, since the pool of Jewish residents in an area is usually very limited. This is the fate of synagogues in small town America, particularly in areas that used to be important hubs of business or industry but have since waned. When the newer generations move to bigger cities in search of opportunities, there is very little we can do to keep the shul open. We have lost millions to the Holocaust and to assimilation. We are loosing some thousands more due to demographic factors that are not in our hands.

 

It is my opinion that the future of Judaism demands us to reconstruct our approach to conversion seriously. Granted that it is unquestionably forbidden to force anybody to become a Jew, and that Jews have not been active proselytizers for thousands of years. However, I think that there is a big difference between knocking on somebody’s door Bible in hand (white shirt and tie included) and reaching out to non-Jews who are ready to explore Judaism. Most of the negative traditional attitudes towards candidates to conversion are fruit of the times and circumstances that surrounded the Jewish community in centuries past. According to some of these attitudes, a beit din is supposed to reject candidates up to three times before accepting them to the conversion process. Once accepted, a number of right-wing batei din will make practically impossible for the convert to succeed, demanding from the person a level of observance –always interpreted in the narrowest way possible– that they would never dare to demand from those who are born Jewish. While I am not advocating careless leniency on conversion processes, I think it is time to denounce the lack of humanity, understanding, and derekh erets of many a beit din.

 

Once a person is officially converted it is almost inevitable that s/he will not be universally recognized. For those of you who may not know, in principle Reconstructionists accept conversions effectuated by all other movements (caveat: it is the Reconstructionist congregation and not the rabbi who decides whom to recognize). Reform rabbis recognize all conversions, but Conservative rabbis only accept Orthodox or Conservative conversions. As for Orthodox, they only accept their own, and yet not universally: it is not uncommon for Orthodox rabbis to question batei din from other Orthodox trends. Although generalizations are never fair, I would say that the more insular a denomination is, the less welcoming to conversion candidates. When we talk about Israel, recognition also means the right of immigration, and unfortunately the Orthodox monopoly of legal institutions makes things very difficult for everybody else. If it wasn’t enough with the Israeli chief rabbis anathematizing non-Orthodox conversions, lately they are equally nullifying conversions performed by American Orthodox rabbis. What is worse, when the beit din declares that a convert is not such, it creates a human drama that includes this person being denied aliyah, having his or her marriage nullified and his children declared mamzerim.

 

While I don’t think we should accept conversions that skip important steps (namely brit, mikveh, duly constituted beit din, etc.), in my opinion all demands should be reasonable. Even if one is so concerned for the fulfillment of all halakhic minutiae, I still do not see why conversion processes are not being evaluated case-by-case, and why –when there is a serious doubt– the batei din do not deploy all ways and means to “re-convert” expeditiously the person whose conversion is questioned. You are entitled to not consider a conversion valid according to your standards, but it is just not Jewish to leave the person out there and not help her regularize the situation.

 

The more astringent argumentation for the denial of recognition is as follows: according to SA Yoreh De’a 286:12, a convert must have the intention of keeping all commandments at the time of the bet din. Even if s/he doesn’t observe afterward, the conversion is still valid. However, there are rules as for who can act as a judge and witness of a conversion: any public transgressors of commandments are disqualified. And that is where Orthodox operate in the assumption than all non-Orthodox rabbis are by definition public transgressors. Do you see the problem? Nobody is really doing this for the sake of the convert, or even out of love for the Torah, but rather as a political game, because they cannot conceive the possibility of recognizing the authority of a rabbi that doesn’t belong to their denomination.

 

Lately, some other Jewish movements take an apparently more friendly approach to conversion and encourage non-Jews to observe the seven noachide laws. Their argument: why would anybody want to go through the hassle of conversion when they can become one of the benei Noach? Particularly in South America we are witnessing an explosion of websites, groups and even congregations that ascribe themselves to this category. The problem is that the renaissance of this halakhic concept is not exempt of an agenda. Most of what we know about the noachides is codified by Maimonides, who equals a noachide to a ger toshav, a hassid umot ha-olam. The Rambam did not understand this category of people as limited to the physical land of Israel. Anybody who accepts the seven mitzvot is a ger toshav, living among Jews in any of the lands of their dispersion. However, the Rambam says that until the days of the messiah we can only accept a full convert, not a ger toshav (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 10:6). Why does then Chabad –for instance– encourage non-Jews to accept the noachide commandments? Probably because they would have problems with their full conversion. Firstly, if Schnerson was the messiah, we are currently living in the messianic era and there is dispensation to accept noachides. The second reason is Chabad’s theology of the nature of non-Jews who, according to the second chapter of Tanya, have no neshamah: like Jews, they do have an animal soul, but do not possess that “extra” divine soul reserved for Jews. Jews have a spiritual purpose, gentiles a physical one (Likutei Sichot v. 25, p. 49). How can somebody become a Jew, if it is not in the person’s nature? Nobody can get himself a divine soul if he lacks one! Some Orthodox groups even think that teaching Torah to a non-Jew is prohibited, less the person uses it for idolatrous purposes. If you are not outraged, you should.

 

Without advocating careless leniency, and with all respect for our halakhah, I think we should all do teshuvah for making it difficult for potential converts to adopt Judaism fully. People should be well informed, study Judaism in depth and understand the process before being fully accepted as Jews. However, all demands should be reasonable and all care should be given to treat the person with sincere respect and acceptance. It is true that progressive shuls are a lot more welcoming for converts, but not totally exempt of prejudices. We should all do teshuvah for the way we have treated converts when questioning and “marking” them, which is against the halakhah. Think of the many times a person is casually reminded that they are converts, or a rabbi insists they should use ben Avraham avinu when called to the Torah (less somebody would think that his “real” father’s name was Abraham! I’ve seen this even in a few “progressive” synagogues). In the 1990s I was outraged to hear an important leader of liberal Judaism in Europe say that we should put a cap on conversions because too many converts in a shul would have pernicious effects in the congregation’s culture. Even in this day an age, we all have our own baggage of prejudice and insularism. We should particularly question our congregations’ attitudes toward converts of a different race, transgender persons or anybody who looks slightly different than your average American Ashkenazi. Even in the most liberal circles, some are suffering discrimination.

 

Finally, we should question our misconceptions about “proselytism,” and examine what is allowed when making outreach to non-Jews and what is not. According to the Rambam, proselytizing is actually one of the 613 commandments: the Responsa 149 says it is permitted to teach the commandments to non-Jews in order to drawn them close to our religion. In the Rambam’s Sefer ha mitsvot, the third commandment is to love G-d. He states that the way we fulfill this injunction is by sharing the knowledge of G-d with the world and drawing others close to HaShem. Maybe we will not knock on doors but I see no problem on organizing Judaism courses to target potential converts, or on informing mixed families that our clergy is open and willing to explore conversion studies. In the same context, the mitzvah no. 9 is to sanctify the Name of G-d. Its essence, for Maimonides, is to publicize the faith in HaShem without fear of any harm incurred by doing so. The verb used here is lefarsem, to publicize or proclaim. I cannot avoid to relate it to another proclamation, the so-called pirsuma de-nisa. This Aramaic expression, which contains the same root, is the one our rabbis use when talking about the commandment of lighting our chanukias in front of the window, so that we can proclaim and publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. My wish for this season is that we strive to make our Judaism shine out for whomever wants to see its light.

Jews and the Internets

Any keyboard player of a certain age –and I risk dating myself here– will agree that the advent of commercial music synthesizers introduced revolutionary changes in the music scene. While for older or less adventurous musicians they mostly meant a tool for cheap emulation of acoustic instruments (why hire a string orchestra if you can use one of these new synth patches?), for artists who were ready to think outside the box the invention offered a dramatically enlarged sound palette. It just doesn’t make sense to poorly imitate violins when we can create amazing sounds that never existed before. Changing parameters is quite ineffective without a change of mindset.

 

New technology applied to Jewish institutions goes much farther than approaching email as a cheaper form of mass-mailing. Too many people still look at computers as sophisticated typewriters of sorts that will save us a fortune in printing and edition. Although there is a real danger of implementing new technology for the sake of itself, as an end and not as a means, most Jewish groups are rather conservative when investing in technology. Timidly, some denominations and groups are approaching the Internet with a more open mind and consider new possibilities such as podcasting their Shabbat service, using social networks to announce their programs, uploading their benei mitzvah materials online, etc. (I will not extend this post by enumerating potential uses of the internet, their virtues and flaws, but I suggest you to check this interesting article from the Reform movement). These are all good steps, although sometimes I wonder if we are not keeping the old same idea and just switching physical supports, like when we substituted the haftarot recorded on tape for those shiny CD’s. Yes, now the audio files can be downloaded straight to the kid’s Ipod, but isn’t the idea the same?

 

Of course, as the article says, the application of technology is not exempted of dangers. We risk having a virtual community of people connected online, but not in touch with each other in the “real” world. The availability of information may lead some to think that teachers, rabbis, and cantors are no longer needed, since after all the answers are online. We’ll have to believe that ultimately Judaism will find ways to use new inventions like we did in the past. The Talmud, as R. Dan Moskovitz says, was probably the first blog ever. This compendium of vivid discussions is based on a central mishnah to which a number of rabbis through the generations added their commentaries, rebated each other and a few times even reached to conclusions! From our modern perspective, the results may look somehow chaotic but they help us understand the richness of our diversity of opinions. When extending the metaphor to Web 2.0 and Judaism, we see many parallels. The problem –if there’s such a thing– is that today everybody can chime in, both rabbis and amkha, while in the Talmud only an elite was involved in the discussion.

 

New technology is not inherently good or bad; it just changes the rules of the game and, if we are lucky and clever planners, may become the motor for a giant evolutionary leap. The invention of the printing press allowed an unprecedented diffusion of Jewish knowledge and a standardization of key textual sources. What made the Shulhan Arukh the preferred halakhic code for generations was the virtue of being written at the beginning of the printing revolution. It enjoyed momentum over the older Arba Turim, for instance, thus becoming the reference code. Our current configuration of the Talmud –Mishnah and Gemara in the center, surrounded by Tosafot, Rashi, etc.–, was an innovation we owe to the early printers. And yet, the same miracle technology favored the expansion of Sabbateanism through Europe and that almost destroyed Judaism.

 

One of the virtues of web 2.0 is what Emily Grotta calls democratization of Jewish life, although I am not so sure new technology introduces a real democratization but rather an equalization of voices. People and opinions who were in the fringes now can reach big audiences. I think this is ultimately good and is helping create grassroots movements that are making a difference. Just a small example: when in the early nineties the first group for LGBTQ Catalan Jews was created, its founders had to invest many hours, phone calls and snail mail. After a year of hard work, when the group was about to host the European convention for Queer Jewish organizations for the first time in the country, joined pressures of the mainstream Jewish community managed to stop the event dead. The local group disappeared after a couple of years. By contrast, nowadays the new local Jewish LGBTQ group is alive and well. It started as a grassroots movement on Facebook, out of the reach of political games, interdenominational, and virtually unstoppable.

 

In any case, the democratization brought by Web 2.0 is not always so welcome and often has unpredictable consequences. It is a know fact that big pharmaceutical companies are eliminating their social networking groups. They simply are not willing to implement the feedback they receive about their products. Some Jewish institutions may just not really want feedback from our constituents. In another very interesting article Charles Lechner refers his conversation with certain Jewish federation who solicited his advise on online development. His answer was clear: you’ll have to think different, to evolve from the top-down agenda to a listening agenda, to give voice to people other than the big donors. Their answer: this is just not going to happen. The key is fear of democratizing the communication power, fear that information is going to spill out of control. What happens when you don’t listen? That all those marginalized voices stop sending their donations and even using your services. Sometimes –Lechner explains– the interest of the donors can clash with that of the regular patrons, like in the case of New Voices, a magazine targeting Jewish students. After listening to its readers, the magazine opened its pages to voices that were very critical with Israel. The donors, however, were not pleased and pulled their money out.

 

Jewish institutions are often controlled exclusively by big donors. As I wrote in several occasions, it is not clear what will synagogues and Jewish organizations look like in the future, but something tells me they will have to introduce many changes to survive. Take a look at the average age of these organizations boards. It is no secret that younger boards would probably be more open to technology changes, or to any kind of changes for that matter. And yet, an obsolete Jewish organization will probably not revive just because of a great Internet campaign. We have to face the future with realism, evaluating the actual needs of people and not expecting them to finance programs based on the needs other people had in the past.

 

Future of Judaism, again.

These days I have been thinking a lot about the future of Judaism, particularly in the US. It is obvious that we are in transition; we just don’t know to what new models! What is sure is that synagogues, Jewish institutions and even Jewish culture itself will be something radically different in twenty years. We can live in denial or begin to work to adapt ourselves. The blogosphere and other media offer so many interesting opinions on that subject that it is hard to keep track. Just yesterday, I was reading two extremely different online articles.

The first one was Daniel Pipes More about the future of Judaism.”After analyzing recent studies and statistics about the evolution of American Jewish population, Pipes reaches to the conclusion that the future is in the hands of Orthodoxy. Two major factors point out to this trend: they have a higher birth rate –and thus a younger population– and a supposedly stronger vitality that helps combat the general trend towards assimilation. Quoting Norman Lamm, Daniel Pipes thinks that in the future the Reform and Conservative movements will be history, an interesting but failed experiment. We will be back to that mythical time when –as Orthodoxy chooses to believe– there was only “one Judaism.”

The second article is Patrick Aleph’s “How do you approach a future of Judaism.” Aleph’s overview of the current state of the Jewish community is, in my opinion, quite accurate: we are keeping a huge number of anchylosed institutions that are essentially duplicate offers targeting an already over-marketed collective. JCC’s gyms and day-cares try to compete against their non-Jewish counterparts; in any given city you have a Hillel, a Birthright Next, plus the youth programs of the JCC and of each one of synagogues competing for a pool of increasingly disengaged young Jews. For Patrick Aleph the trend towards dual-identities (BuJews, HindJews, etc.), interfaith households, and non-theism is rapidly transforming Jewish life, from our prayer to our pastoral care. Patrick Aleph’s opinion is that the future of Judaism is in humanistic, secular, non-theism.

I am not sure if denominations are soon going to be history, but definitely they have a somber future, Orthodoxy included. Otherwise, we would not have so many Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionewal or “just Traditional” Jews (not to mention the closing of seminaries, increasing number of non-affiliated shuls, etc). Diversity is a sign of our times: if historically there never was a “one Judaism,” today each of us chooses its unique identity that is in constant osmosis and evolution, a well balanced cocktail of Jewish-Catalan-American-Progressive-Queer-Recon-yoga-traditionalism. David Pipes is right to declare that Orthodoxy is growing, but I don’t think this goes beyond mere statistics; I am not sure how much retention there is in this growth, nor do I see any particular signs of vitality. If this was true, Israel –and not America– would be the motor of Jewish culture and renewal, the think-tank of Jewish future. Quite the opposite, wherever Orthodoxy is the majority –like in Israel and in my own country of origin– it is exerting an asphyxiating power and influence in the rest of the Jewish community. There is no innovation, no flexibility, no realistic outreach, little adaptation or concern for contemporary issues, and very little intellectual honesty. Everywhere I look, I see insularity, blatant hostility to potential converts, hijacking of Zionism, and less than ethical political lobbying. We will be a handful but boy, will we be kosherer-than-thou! Religious fundamentalism may be a popular global trend in this day and age, but does it inspire any constructive changes for the future? (Disclaimer: I am talking of cases and places where Orthodox are majority, not of individual Orthodox persons).

We have to think outside the box, reinvent Jewish infrastructures. Carthago delenda est. However, unlike Patrick Aleph, I don’t think theism is our contemporary Carthago. The interest for spirituality is not decreasing at all, although the approach to this spirituality is more individual, less group-oriented

and definitely less institutional and standardized. Our concept of the divine may need updating, and we need to be attuned to all forms of spirituality, theistic or not. However, there is still plenty of space for a theistic spiritual community; we will have to figure out what will this community look like.

I agree that Jewish federations and JCC’s are less and less relevant for most people, and that there is a trend to connect with horizontal groups and minyanim rather than with vertical, institutionalized synagogues. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, more concerns than excitement about this trend. To begin with, there is a danger of atomization: we can create a number of new collectives whose new tradition is so different that it is just not recognizable to the rest of the Jews. At a certain point in history, the Latin spoken in Italy and the one spoken in France became so different that, in fact, they spoke two languages, French and Italian. I am not advocating for a chief rabbinate to decide who is in and who is out –a solution that never made much sense and that now is just anachronic–, but I’m not sure how are we going to hold this together.

My second concern is how much effort and money do we really want to invest in these well-needed new Jewish venues and structures. While I am a strong believer in horizontal communities and equality, I am also concerned that a trend towards independent minyanim may hide an unwillingness to pay for a synagogue membership or for a rabbi/cantor salary. It is great that people take responsibilities, learn to lead services, teach what they know to others; but sometimes we need a better-educated person to help us go the extra mile. A professional clergy can expose the minyan to things they never heard about. An unfortunate example of the opposite is the present state of hazzanut: it is nice that so many people are knowledgeable and feel empowered to present themselves as cantorial soloists. What would a synagogue hire a more-expensive ordained cantor if this volunteer can do it? As a result, so much of our musical tradition is just lost. You may not even know there is a nusach for the holidays, since we all sing Shabbat modes for Shavuot. Those of you who know me, know that I am the last person to advocate for an five-minute operatic cantorial recitative. I am more for spirited singing and clapping, but I also deplore the fact that people think there is only one melody for Salm 92.

So here it is: wish I had innovative ideas to expose. I think that the motor for change is our willingness to not take anything for granted. We have been changing and evolving for centuries and this is just another step. Let’s all get involved and excited about it, keeping an open mind and a passionate heart.

Fallacies of part-time jobs: a hopefully constructive perspective

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.