by Gordon Nary
Gordon: When and where were you ordained?
Jeff: I attended the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM) at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York City. HUC-JIR is a Reform Jewish seminary, founded in 1875 to educate rabbis. The DFSSM was founded in 1948 for the training of cantors. Both the rabbinic and cantorial schools are five-year graduate programs. I was ordained in 1980. (HUC-JIR has three other campuses, in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, but New York has the only full-time cantorial program.)
Gordon: To which synagogue/s did you belong and what were your responsibilities as cantor?
Jeff: I recently retired and am now cantor emeritus of TempleSinai in Sharon, Mass., a Reform synagogue near Boston, where I started in 2001. Prior to that I spent 18 years as cantor of Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, Ill. My first position after ordination was at the LeoBaeck EducationCenter in Haifa, Israel.
The role of a cantor varies widely. Historically, the cantor (Hebrew: hazzan) was primarily a prayer leader. In addition to having a good voice, the cantor had to be an expert in the Hebrew prayers, especially the traditional melodies used for different holidays. Prior to the 20th century, cantors were trained by apprenticeship. This traditional role for the cantor is still found in many Orthodox synagogues, where the position is often shared by the most knowledgeable members. In Reform and Conservative synagogues, the cantor may be full or part-time, depending on the size and budget of the congregation. Ordained cantors function as clergy alongside the rabbi, officiating at worship, life cycle rituals and many other synagogue affairs, such as hospital visits. A major difference with rabbis is that the cantor specializes in music, which usually involves training students for bar/bat mitzvah, teaching songs and conducting choirs. The rabbi is the religious leader of the community.
Gordon: Please share with our readers your participation in the new Reform prayer book.
Jeff: Each Jewish denomination uses its own prayerbook (Hebrew: siddur). In Orthodox siddurim the prayers are entirely in Hebrew, essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Reform siddur is eclectic, incorporating contemporary translations and poetry, with English alongside the Hebrew. The Conservative siddur falls somewhere in the middle, containing more of the traditional Hebrew, but with modern translations.
About 20 years ago I was appointed to the editorial committee charged with creating a new Reform siddur, called Mishkan T’filah (Tabernacle of Prayer). The previous prayerbook had been revised in 1975 but, after 25 years, the world had changed so rapidly that the ‘old’ siddur no longer met the needs of a new generation. Among the changes — much of the traditional liturgy that had been left out of earlier versions was reinstated, and English transliterations were added so that non-Hebrew readers could participate. Also, many English translations were re-written in order to replace masculine descriptions of God (such as ‘Lord’ and ‘King’) with gender-neutral terms like ‘Eternal’ and ‘Ruler.’
Gordon: What influence did Pete Seeger have on your career?
Jeff: I grew up during the 1960s, when folk music was everywhere. Pete Seeger had been singing songs of justice and peace for decades (he wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”) and he helped pave the way for Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Seeger was more of a song-leader than an entertainer. During the civil rights era he helped popularize “We Shall Overcome,” and he was one of the leading voices for peace during the Vietnam War. Pete could get thousands of people singing together in about five minutes. It was because of him that I decided to take guitar lessons and become a song-leader. From Pete I learned that singing creates community — it brings people together, in spite of their differences.
Gordon: When did you begin composing and what are some of your more popular composition?
Jeff: I was inspired to write my own songs after getting to know the late Debbie Friedman, who began composing Jewish songs in the early 1970s at Jewish camps. A few years later we became very good friends, and when she died unexpectedly in 2011 it was a devastating loss. Debbie and I, and a few others, believed that congregational singing was the key to creating spiritually transcendent worship in our synagogues. Up to that time Reform music had been sung mostly by a cantor and choir.
In college I met a wonderful singer named Dan Freelander. We began to perform as a duo and started writing original tunes to Hebrew prayers. Some were written for camps and schools but eventually became popular in synagogue services as well. We needed to choose a name for our group, so I took an Israeli expression meaning “everything’s ok” and turned it into a pun, since the Hebrew word for ‘everything’ sounds like the word for ‘voice,’ and we called ourselves Kol B’Seder. Dan became a rabbi, and he recently retired after a distinguished career. This year we are celebrating our 50th as a singing duo, and our most popular song, a prayer for peace called “Shalom Rav,” is known around the world. Hearing young people sing our music, and seeing them create their own songs, is not just thrilling – it is the greatest gift we could ever imagine!