“We need to mute you now so that we can sing together.”
“As a cantor who has dedicated my life to communal singing, pressing the mute button is so unnatural,” said Cantor Rayna Green. “I miss the sound of our congregational voice, growing in strength and grandeur as our sacred melodies transport us to new spiritual heights.” While grateful for the technology that enables us to stay connected during this time, that technology is not conducive to communal singing. Cantors across the globe are innovating and re-imagining communal spiritual life in a world of muted zoom calls.
While worshipers are no longer greeted at the doors with hugs from ushers and friends, they are now greeted with “live chats sharing Shabbat wishes, comforting messages for the bereaved and sick, and big mazel tovs to the b’nai mitzvah,” said Cantor Jessica Hutchings. Cantors are helping the growing number of congregants tuning in to Shabbat services find moments of meaning and holiness. “We are all mourning the loss of communal singing,” said Cantor Elizabeth Sacks. “However, we have re-discovered the power of call and response prayer. Although we cannot blend our voices into a swell of sound, we can reach out and respond to one another with the music of our souls.”
Much like other Jewish professionals, cantors have been quickly adapting to congregational life based online. Overnight, cantors had to become experts in digital and online music production. Leading sacred music with groups of people is what cantors do naturally, and now they are figuring out how to do so on streaming platforms. “Within 24 hours,” Cantor Hutchings added, “‘cantor’ also meant social media expert, graphics specialist, and IT department.”
Being creative and nimble in this environment is essential. Cantor Michael Shochet drove to the houses of 26 confirmands so they each could hold the Torah. Cantor Jennifer Frost watched with teary eyes as her first zoom Bar Mitzvah student sat, “shoulder to shoulder with his parents to chant his first aliyah of Torah. It was more meaningful than we could have anticipated.” Cantor Ross Wolman has mastered Final Cut Pro to bring virtual choir videos to his congregation. With more people attending Jewish programming than ever before, cantors are helping to expand beyond their congregational walls. “I used to lead a music class for kids ages 0-5 in the Early Childhood Center,” Cantor Rachel Rhodes said. “Now I have families tuning in from all over to sing and be silly with me online!”
Despite many successes, there are frustrations. “It is deeply troubling to not be able to visit the ill in the hospital,” said Cantor Wolman. “A phone call is nice, but it is just not the same as holding hands and sharing a moment of prayer.” Cantors feel this physical distance acutely when a congregant loses a loved one. “We have seen an incredible increase in the numbers of funerals and shivas, and not being able to sit with a mourner in their time of sorrow breaks my heart,” said Cantor Rhodes. While for some accessing technology is easy, others less adept are left feeling isolated. To combat loneliness, “our caring community has developed T’fillah Buddies, in which congregants call elderly members to help them connect to the digital service over the phone,” shares Cantor Green. On top of it all, balancing professional and family life has never been more challenging. “With two young children at home- one navigating home schooling and one a toddler- every moment requires multiplicity of purpose,” said Cantor Sacks.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the cantorate into a dynamic shift. “Out of necessity, we are taking risks and broadening our horizons,” said Cantor Ellen Dreskin. “I am feeling a sense of liberation from old routines and am filled with hope for the future of our spirits and our faith.” Cantors are supporting one another as we think outside of the box about how to uphold our communities’ spiritual needs. “When we look back at this time,” said Cantor Shochet, “we will remember how resilient we were by creating meaningful moments. It is all in how we choose to respond.”
We know how much music nourishes the soul and renews our strength when we are weary. “Communal singing is the glue that binds our prayers together,” said Cantor Wolman. Cantors are devastated by the research that shows we will not be singing together in person for a long time to come. When faced with the great challenge of envisioning the upcoming High Holy Days, this reality is hard to swallow. And yet, Jews have always adapted to the difficult times. “We have to be ok living in ambiguity and that is just plain hard,” said Cantor Frost. “But we will continue to be present and pivot while making meaningful moments for our community.”
Cantor Rachel Rhodes works at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va. Cantor Rayna Green works at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohi in Deerfield, Ill.