Once a week for the past seven years, New York State Supreme Court Justice Martin Schulman has made the trip from his courthouse chambers in Jamaica, Queens to Yeshiva University’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music on YU’s Washington Heights Wilf Campus.
Joined in a classroom by students who run the gamut from undergraduates and aspiring rabbis to doctors, lawyers, security guards and bus drivers, Schulman studies nusach hatefillah and the theories, music and techniques of chazzanut, or cantorial singing, a critical Jewish skill that is fast being forgotten. But it’s not just about singing: at its core, chazzanut is about channeling the voice of a community.
That skill is the main emphasis at Belz, a division of YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
Traditionally, cantors have played a central role in synagogue life, where their responsibilities often included much more than the soulful and resonant chanting of prayer services in accordance with communal custom for which they are usually known.
In recent decades, however, their presence in synagogues across the United States has become increasingly rare, often limited to conducting services at special times such as the High Holidays, as fewer and fewer communities have the resources to employ a cantor full time. With this change, the art of chazzanut, its history and its customs are at risk of being lost to time.
“Belz seeks to preserve Jewish musical tradition and counter the shortage of professionally educated cantors and ba’alei tefillah by providing courses in every aspect of Jewish prayer and music to prepare students to serve communities across the world,” said Cantor Bernard Beer, the school’s director since 1985.
“Its holistic curriculum includes not only courses in nusach hatefillah and chazzanut, but also in biblical cantillation, shofar blowing, choral and instrumental ensemble, congregational singing and group leading – all designed to give cantors a full appreciation for their role in their communities and all the skills they need to fulfill it.”
Over the past few years, however, cantors and rabbis in training have been joined at the Belz school by another kind of student – laymen like Schulman seeking to keep the cantorial tradition alive.
“In any classroom, we have students who take our courses because they want to go into the field, undergraduates or semicha students looking to round out their education, and also the ba’alei batim who want to contribute to the shul davening,” said Beer.
“They may come to us because they want to be able to daven properly for the amud, for their parents’ yahrzeits, or even just to know a basic Minchah, Maariv, or Shacharit, and they usually end up taking it very seriously.”
According to Beer, there’s a good reason even professionals not interested in a cantorial career are coming to Belz to get grounded in the basics: there’s no other place to learn it.
“In the old days, people knew how to daven just by coming to the synagogue and listening to the ba’alei tefillah,” he said. “That generation has dwindled and gone. People don’t have that knowledge anymore.”
That’s one of the reasons Schulman began attending classes at Belz seven years ago.
“A lot of people who learn in so much depth about everything else in Judaism don’t know basic nusach anymore,” he said.
“But I believe tefillah has to be done in a specific way. The nusach that we’ve inherited conveys not only the spirit of the particular prayers but also of the day on which they’re said.”
Zachary Bienenfeld, a recent Yeshiva College graduate now working as a technology analyst at JP Morgan Chase, agreed. As a student, he began taking classes at Belz with the goal of being able to better lead prayer services and so enjoyed them that he is continuing them this semester, post-graduation. He has also begun leading High Holidays services in the Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon, N.Y., where he follows the Belz nusach to the note.
“The nusach replicates the European style of davening and hearing it takes you back to the roots of your Jewish identity in Europe,” he said. “Belz is the only school in America that teaches it – that teaches the musical component which most people really don’t know about.”