web analytics
March 30, 2015 / 10 Nisan, 5775
At a Glance
Sections
Sponsored Post


Upholding The Art Of Chazzanut At YU’s Belz School Of Jewish Music


Yeshiva College graduate Zachary Bienenfeld continues his studies at Belz.  He will lead the High Holiday services at a Mount Vernon synagogue.

Yeshiva College graduate Zachary Bienenfeld continues his studies at Belz. He will lead the High Holiday services at a Mount Vernon synagogue.

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.”

Rabbi David Schwezoff and Cantor Bernard Beer (seated). (Photo by David Khabinsky)

Rabbi David Schwezoff and Cantor Bernard Beer (seated). (Photo by David Khabinsky)

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.”

According to Cantor Beer, though, the cantor’s task has changed over the last century: “The responsibility now is also to inspire the people, to get them to sing along.”

He believes that trend began 40-50 years ago, when individual participation became more important to communities; before that, many shuls had choirs that sang along instead.

Rabbi David Schwezoff, a native of Budapest, Hungary, takes the responsibility to move others with his davening especially seriously. “Even during my high school years I was asked to daven for the amud quite frequently, since not many people in my community knew how to do it,” he said. “But when I do something, I want to do it my best.”

Now a full-time cantor in one of the largest communities in Budapest, Schwezoff initially came to the United States to study at Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Rockland County, N.Y., but he was also searching for a place to learn nusach and real cantorial techniques to take back to his shul in Hungary.

When he discovered Belz, he was ecstatic: “At Belz, they impress upon you what it means to be a shaliach tzibbur, how someone in that role must feel and behave, understanding the meaning and background of the prayer, not just how to sing it.”

Schulman agreed: “Instead of just using the general nusach, I’m able to incorporate certain things from my Belz classes to make the davening meaningful.”

Cantor Joseph Malovany (left) provides instruction to Judge Martin Schulman. (Photo by David Khabinsky)

Cantor Joseph Malovany (left) provides instruction to Judge Martin Schulman. (Photo by David Khabinsky)

In his case, that meant adapting a special niggun passed on from Distinguished Professor of Liturgical Music Cantor Joseph Malovany’s own teacher, Shlomo Ravitch, to daven Shabbat Mussaf for his mother’s yahrzeit each year.

He also enjoys the diversity of his fellow classmates: “I may be a judge and 65 years old, but the camaraderie in the class, the mix of professionals like me and the college-age students who are there, really brings me back to my own college experience.”

At the end of the day, however, they’re all there for the same reason.

“When people walk into a synagogue they expect to hear a certain sound, and that sound is an aura that envelops them in a particular holiday, event or prayer,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, outreach coordinator at Belz.

“Our job here is to uphold the musical heritage of our synagogue and our people.”

About the Author:


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

One Response to “Upholding The Art Of Chazzanut At YU’s Belz School Of Jewish Music”

  1. Ch Hoffman says:

    every dime that is used to subsidize the Belz school is another dime that's not going where it's needed – day schools to teach 10 year-old kids to know the siddur & chumash.

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Former PM Ehud Olmert at Tel Aviv District Court hears his sentence on May 13, 2014. (archive)
Ehud Olmert Found Guilty of Fraud in ‘Talansky Affair’
Latest Sections Stories
Neuman-Rabbi-M-Gary

Are we allowed to lie for shalom bayis? It would seem so, but what might be a healthy guideline for when it’s okay and when it’s not?

book-To-Fill-The-Sky-With-Stars

The connection between what I experienced as a high school teenager and the adult I am today did not come easy to me.

Respler-032715

Isn’t therapy about being yourself; aren’t there different ways for people to communicate with each other?

South-Florida-logo

Jack was awarded a blue and gold first-place trophy, appropriately topped off with a golden bee.

Participating in ManiCures during the school day may feel like a break from learning, but the intended message to the students was loud and clear. Learning and chesed come in all forms, and can be fun.

Building campaign chairman Jack Gluck has led the effort over many years.

When using an extension cord always make sure to use the correct rated extension cord.

There was no question that when Mrs. Cohen entered the room to meet the teacher she was hostile from the outset.

Szold was among the founders and leaders (she served on its executive committee) of Ichud (“Unity”), a political group that campaigned against the creation of an independent, sovereign Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.

My friend is a strong and capable Jewish woman, but she acted with a passivity that seemed out of character.

“If you don’t stand straight, you’ll never get a husband.”

First, sit down with your helpers and a pen and paper and break the jobs down into small parts.

More Articles from Perel Skier
Yeshiva College graduate Zachary Bienenfeld continues his studies at Belz.  He will lead the High Holiday services at a Mount Vernon synagogue.

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/features/feautures-on-jewish-world/upholding-the-art-of-chazzanut-at-yus-belz-school-of-jewish-music/2013/09/03/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: