Two cantors — one who has worked in the Central community and one new to it — are among the first group of Reform Jewish cantors to be ordained, rather than invested.
Members of their class of six students at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion received their ordination at a ceremony in New York City on May 6.
The change in terminology is the outcome of a long debate in the Reform Movement that, proponents say, reflects how the role of cantors has expanded over the past few decades. The new term is also intended to lower barriers some have faced in trying to carry out their duties, although it brings no change in responsibilities or academic requirements.
Among the newly ordained cantors are Michelle Rubel, who is joining the staff of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield in July, and Vicky Glikin, who served as student cantor for four years at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains/Fanwood. She has just left to take up a post in Highland Park, Ill.
Glikin, who was born in Ukraine, moved with her family to Chicago at age 13. She graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with a degree in economics and a concentration in computer science. She worked for three years as an equity analyst before deciding she wanted to work with the religious community.
“I think the fact that cantors are now ordained rather than invested is a testament to the sacred work that cantors do within Reform congregations and to the education that cantors today receive at HUC,” she said, in a statement issued by Temple Sholom. “Over the last five years of study, I have studied not only sacred music but also sacred text, Jewish history, theology, counseling, education theory, and community organizing, to name a few.
“Getting ordained as a cantor for me is truly a dream come true,” she added. “I emerge…with a renewed commitment to Judaism and Jews, as well as reignited passion to make the world a better place.”
Rubel served as cantorial intern at Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in Washington Heights in New York City during her studies.
She wrote in her blog, “Our ordination as cantors, in my opinion, truly reflects the professional, spiritual, and scholarly work we will be undertaking in our future congregations.”
She went on to say, “I feel proud that the work of our class represents the changing vision for the role of the cantor. And I feel a great sense of humility and gratitude being a part of this historic moment in the history of the American cantorate.”
The change from “investment” to “ordination” was announced in April after years of complaints by cantors that they faced barriers in their clergy work.
For example, a cantor in California was refused entry to a jail to see a Jewish prisoner because she wasn’t regarded as clergy. In some states, to be allowed to officiate at weddings, cantors have had to register as justices of the peace, though rabbis are not required to.
At HUC, rabbis and cantors earn a five-year master’s degree, generally in Jewish letters for the rabbis and Jewish sacred music for the cantors. However, rabbis remain the religious leaders of congregations, except in occasional instances — like at Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah, the Conservative congregation in Clark. Cantor Steven Stern has led that congregation since 2008.
In the Conservative Movement, cantors are still invested, but a similar change in terminology is under consideration. Orthodox congregations, where specially trained cantors are far less common than in the other movements, have not faced the same issue.
Rabbi Joel Abraham of Temple Sholom, with whom Glikin worked, serves on the advisory council of HUC’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. To show rabbinic support for the move, he made the motion to formally propose the change to HUC’s president, David Ellenson.
“The role of cantor is evolving in American and world Judaism,” he told NJJN. “In the best cases, rabbis and cantors work in partnership as spiritual leaders in their congregations. There are differences in those roles. However, cantors — especially those serving in roles as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, and the military — faced discrimination because they were not ‘ordained’ clergy.”
But, Abraham said, the adoption of the English word “ordination” doesn’t affect the distinction of smicha, the Hebrew term reserved for the authority given to new rabbis. “Rabbinic smicha is still rabbinic smicha,” he said.
Asked if he had any concern about the blurring of roles between rabbis and cantors, Abraham said, “Individuals choose their course of studies based on their talents and inclinations. Congregations choose individuals based on their congregational needs. In the end, we’re all in the same business — encouraging people to live more knowledgeable and fulfilled Jewish lives.”
He continued, “I was glad to be a part of this historic moment — both in my role on the advisory committee, and as a proud colleague standing at Temple Emanu-El in New York City as Vicky was ordained.”