‘The Power Of Music And Worship’
Tue, 12/16/2008
Staff Writer
As he walked out of B’nai  Torah Congregation in Boca Raton after morning Sabbath services recently, one congregant was heard to compare the service to an “opera” performance.  The reaction was not uncommon because accompanying the cantor during parts of the service was a five-member professional choir, some of whose members sing with opera companies. This Conservative synagogue also has a 14-member congregational choir that performs with both the cantor and the professional choir. Daniel Snodgrass, the baritone in the professional choir, said he knew of two other congregations in South Florida — another in Palm Beach County and one in Miami-Dade County — that employ professional choirs each Sabbath. Several others, he said, hire professional singers just for the High Holy Days. Rabbi David Steinhardt, B’nai Torah’s senior rabbi, noted that his congregation had lay choirs in the past but that “the professional choir makes it even more beautiful. ... I think it adds an aesthetic dimension that is phenomenal; I love it. I understand the power of music and worship.” The congregation has had a professional choir each Sabbath since the fall of 2007. Rabbi Steinhardt observed that it “is like a throwback to the great Conservative synagogues of the late 1950s and ’60s.” Sheldon Levin, a cantor at Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J., pointed out that in the ’50s and ’60s “many Conservative synagogues had professional choirs and organists who augmented the cantor throughout the service” and that congregants were “expected to sit quietly for long periods.” Writing in the winter issue of V oices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Levin said that although there have been no scientific surveys, “it is obvious that there are fewer professional choirs in our synagogues than there used to be, and fewer congregations use an organ.” In more and more cases, he said, Conservative synagogues have turned to the use of instruments “to create a spirited Shabbat service,” and use congregational choirs only during the High Holy Days, special musical Shabbatot and special events. The uniqueness of both a congregational and professional choir at B’nai Torah each Sabbath attracts Jews from as far south as Miami and as far north as Jupiter, about half-hour drives, according to Audrey Levy of Boca Raton, a member of the congregational choir. Not only do some people come to hear the choirs, but Robin Steiner of Parkland said she was so taken by what she heard that she joined the congregation and the congregational choir. “I was very inspired by what the choir was doing,” she said. “They were singing the most beautiful tunes I’ve heard in a long time. And I looked around and all the people of every age were singing along. I started to cry — it was such an inspirational moment.” The two choirs are under the direction of Michael Glozman, 36, a Russian-born musician who pursued a musical career in Moscow and in Israel before coming to the United States. In Israel, he worked with some of the best Israeli cantors as a singer, arranger and conductor. He came to B’nai Torah three years ago as the choir director. “My goal is to have the choir beautify the service, to create an emotional atmosphere,” he said. “The choir is an additional tool for the cantor to bring about an atmosphere for prayer and to turn to God.” Ehud (Udi) Spielman, the congregation’s cantor, said it had always been a “dream of mine to have professional singers” accompanying him. Spielman, 56, was born in Tel Aviv and grew up with an appreciation for cantorial music because two of his grandfathers were cantors. In the Israel Defense Forces, Spielman was the soloist with the Air Force Orchestra. He later had a 35-year pop music career, performing with his own wedding band. But he gave it up to study to become a cantor and landed the job at B’nai Torah in January 2007. “I don’t put pop songs into the service,” he said. “I do it the traditional way [because] people don’t come to hear pop but to pray and to feel emotions — to make the soul open, and this music is doing it.” In working to assemble a professional choir, Spielman says, he preferred to hire Jewish singers “because we knew some people [in the congregation] would be sensitive to it.” But the search proved futile. “All the Jewish people want to be doctors and lawyers and stars on Broadway,” he said. Rabbi Steinhardt said initially he also “felt it was important to find Jewish singers. But Udi told me it was impossible to find them and I realized that the chazzan [cantor] is the shaliach tzibur [emissary of the congregation]. They are not praying for the congregation but adding to the beauty of the worship experience. Many of them have been very to uched by and influenced by the congregation and the words of the siddur [prayer book].” He said the world has changed since the days when Jews would walk across the street rather than walk in front of a church. “Today we live in a multi-religious society ... and I don’t see this as a compromise in any way,” Rabbi Steinhardt said of the decision to hire non-Jewish singers. Added Spielman: “If Christians say positive things about our God, we have to thank them. ... If they agree to sing to our God, why do we have to complain about it? If they are ready to help a Jewish cantor make prayer sound better, I don’t see it as a negative. There is only one God for all of us. Just like an orchestra, the singers give beauty to the service and the cantor is the one who transfers the prayers to the people. I say the prayers and the choir only gives me the background music. They may say a line, but I always repeat it.” Steiner, the lay choir member, said the fact that “everybody in the congregation is responding and inspired to sing enthusiastically at the top of their lungs” overrides any concerns about the professional choir’s religious beliefs. Snodgrass, one of the professional singers, pointed out that he also sings at a church in Miami Beach and that he doesn’t believe he must hold the same religious beliefs as the members of the church or synagogue in which he performs. “My purpose is to enhance their religious experience,” he said. “If my singing makes somebody feel something even more, I’m happy to do it. ... I find that people pay closer attention to the service because of the intensity of it. And the congregation always sings along.”