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Seminary Decision Opens Door for Women Cantors

February 14, 1987|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

The recent decision by Conservative Judaism's seminary to break tradition and license women cantors will not only benefit two women students graduating in May but also women who are already serving in Conservative synagogues.

Cantors lead the prayers in Jewish services and many are soloists who also perform in concerts outside the synagogue.

Cantor Linda Rich of Los Angeles, who in 1978 was the first woman cantor hired to sing in a Conservative synagogue, said she is "very excited" about the recent announcement by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City.

The decision is expected to allow the Cantors Assembly, the professional society of cantors in the centrist branch of American Judaism, to open up its all-male membership not only to the seminary's new graduates but also to many women cantors who were trained at Reform Judaism's Hebrew Union College.

Even as the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty debated in recent years whether it could certify women cantors, some Conservative synagogues had exercised their autonomy in hiring women who had appropriate training from Hebrew Union College, including Rich.

Rich, now serving a Conservative synagogue in Burbank, said she hopes to be among the first Conservative cantors of her sex to be admitted to the Cantors Assembly, possibly later this year. On the seminary decision, Rich said, "It was inevitable, but the decision came sooner than I thought it would."

The Jewish Theological Seminary announced a week ago that it would issue diplomas of hazzan (cantor) to two graduates this May. They are Marla Rosenfeld Barugel of Merrick, N.Y., and Erica Lippitz of Evanston, Ill. Eleven of the 25 students at the Seminary College of Jewish Music are women.

Seminary Chancellor Ismar Schorsch said the decision was "the culmination of a century-long evolution of the status of women under (traditional Jewish) law." The seminary, the spiritual and academic center of Conservative Judaism, admitted the first women rabbinical candidates in 1984 and ordained the first woman rabbi, Amy Eilberg, in 1985.

First Woman Cantor

The Reform movement has admitted women rabbis and cantors for years, but Orthodox Judaism bars women from both functions, maintaining that Jewish law prohibits it.

Now in her mid-30s, Rich became the first woman cantor at a Conservative synagogue eight years ago at Los Angeles' Temple Beth Zion, whose rabbi is Edward M. Tenenbaum. After leaving there in 1984, she worked briefly for Reconstructionist and Reform temples. She started the position that she holds now at Temple Emmanu El in Burbank last August.

Two other women cantors also work in Los Angeles-area Conservative synagogues: Janis Guralnick, who succeeded Rich at Temple Beth Zion, and Laurie Rimland, an assistant cantor at Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge.

The Executive Council of the Cantors Assembly is expected on March 31 to accept women cantor graduates from the seminary as members. Informal ballots among about 30 council members have shown that 90% favored the action if the seminary endorsed the change.

Cantor Samuel Rosenbaum, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly, said the council would also set up standards for accepting women already working as cantors. "We probably will not be accepting any women members, including the two graduates, until we meet in September," Rosenbaum said in an interview from his Rochester, N.Y., home.

The series of events should "help in the long run to alleviate the current shortage of cantors," Rosenbaum said. The numbers of men studying to be cantors has dropped in recent years.

The seminary decision to grant diplomas to women cantors was made after a favorable opinion on Jewish law written by Rabbi Joel Roth, an associate professor in Talmud at the seminary. Roth said women are eligible to serve the Jewish community as cantors if they voluntarily accept certain obligations from which Jewish women have been exempted, including traditional prayer requirements.

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