2016-05-11 / Home

As congregations shrink, cantors become rabbis—and work as both

By DINA WEINSTEIN JTA


Rabbi Julie Jacobs, flanked by former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels (left) and musician Matisyahu, celebrating her rabbinical installation at Beth David Congregation in 2015. Previously the Miami synagogue’s cantor, she now works as both. 
JTA photo courtesy of Beth David Congregation. Rabbi Julie Jacobs, flanked by former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels (left) and musician Matisyahu, celebrating her rabbinical installation at Beth David Congregation in 2015. Previously the Miami synagogue’s cantor, she now works as both. JTA photo courtesy of Beth David Congregation. MIAMI—

After 30 years as a cantor, Mark Kula, who spent more than two decades at a Miami-area Conservative synagogue, became a rabbi.

To make this happen, Kula didn’t have to withdraw from his longtime position at Bet Shira Congregation in suburban Pinecrest. Nor did he relocate in order to obtain his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he earned his investiture.

Instead, after three years of online study with the Woodmere, New York-based Rabbinical Academy Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, Kula was ordained in 2013.

“I have a love of learning and I wanted to learn Judaism in more depth,” said Kula, who had previously served Bet Shira as a sort of unofficial assistant rabbi, officiating lifecycle events and filling in when the congregation lacked a rabbi. “The other reason I wanted to get ordination was because there were different opportunities.”

Kula is part of a growing group of cantors who are earning rabbinic ordination through online courses. For many, Kula included, the aim is to fill the role of “kol bo”—a Hebrew term that translates to “all is within it.” In this case, the phrase refers to a rabbi who is also able to take on a cantorial role, or vice versa.

While online rabbinical schools are typically frowned upon by the Jewish education establishment, in this South Florida city, congregations are generally accepting of these non-traditional ordinations. Many synagogues, struggling to make ends meet, no longer have the budget to cover both a rabbi and a cantor. By using distance learning to transform cantors into kol bos, synagogues can weather the downturn with their leadership intact.

“I’ve seen the cantorial field contracting, diminishing,” said Rabbi Stephen Texon, a Miami Beach cantor who also received ordination from the Rabbinical Academy.

“Cantorial positions were diminishing or being eliminated in many Conservative synagogues,” said Texon, who now functions as a kol bo at the Temple Beth Shmuel Cuban Hebrew Congregation. “Seeing [shrinking congregations] and seeing the closing of Conservative synagogues, I decided to continue working in our synagogue, and that required me to become a rabbi.”

Combining the cantor-rabbi role has become essential to economic survival for both synagogues and clergy in a time of shrinking congregations, said Rabbi Charles Agin, the dean of faculty at the Rabbinical Academy, who himself was ordained at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion.

“Throughout the country it’s one of the driving forces of this phenomenon,” he said, referring to economics.

“We’re a second-career institution,” added Agin, emphasizing his students are mid-career working Jewish professionals. “We take in only mature adults, usually 50 or older, who are well trained and working in the field.”

One such “mature adult” is Cantor Rachelle Nelson at the Reform Temple Beth Am, also in Pinecrest. After years of going beyond her cantorial duties—giving sermons, facilitating lifecycle events and teaching at the synagogue’s day school—she received her ordination from the Rabbinical Academy, just months after Kula did.

“I did it because I wanted the knowledge,” said Nelson, who is staying in her post as a cantor. “I had a calling to it.”

Plus, it provides some insurance for the future.

“I love knowing that I have options,” she said, adding she may pursue a rabbinical pulpit in partial retirement, possibly in North Carolina. s

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