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A personal view of the 8th European Cantors' Convention, held in London in June 2013.

Eric Moses

Cantor Eric Moses is cantor at the Beth Sholom congregation in Toronto. He began his career at the age of twenty-five at the Shaare Zion Congregation in Montreal where he served from 1996 until 2000, before going to Beth Sholom. 3*

He has been singing since the age of six.  His background is in classical music; studying piano and voice at the Royal Conservatory of music in Toronto.  He is a graduate of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute under the direction of Naftali Herstik, Chief Cantor of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue.  In addition to his musical education, he has a Master’s Degree in Business Administration (MBA) from York University in Toronto. 

In 1999, he released his first CD, “Moses Sings.”  In 2000, Cantor Moses was given the greatest honour of officiating next to the Chief Rabbi of Israel and the President of Poland at the worldwide memorial service for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) held at Aushwitz-Birkenau. 

Beyond his abilities as a performer, he has proven himself as an exceptional organizer and promoter of major events.  In 2001, he founded the Beth Sholom Music Series and has since produced numerous concerts.  Most noteworthy is the Symphony to Broadway concert in 2001 featuring the National Academy Orchestra with the star of Les Miserables, Michael Burgess, the Gala Tribute Concert honouring Cantor David Bagley z"l at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in 2005, a Tribute to Cantor Louis Danto in 2006 and a Tribute to Cantor A. Eliezer Kirshblum in 2008. 

Cantor Moses is the immediate past president of the Toronto Council of Hazzanim– Cantorial Clergymen of Ontario.  This is a distinct honour of recognition amongst colleagues who have recognized his leadership qualities and service to his community.

Mission Impossible...How to be a Successful Hazzan in the Synagogue of Tomorrow

I was given the great honour of delivering this address at the recent conference of the European Cantors Association in London.

While we spent the greater part of the week stuyding nusach, improving our repertoire and receiving tips by observing cantorial masterclasses, I dared to asked my colleagues this most difficult question: "What inspires an individual or family to spend roughly $1000-$2000 annually to belong to a synagogue they largely do not attend."

I acknowledged that this is a pervasive trend that exists across the various Jewish denominations. It is a fact that organized religion across the spectrum is on a decline. Synagogue attendance is down and I sadly admitted that our challenges are not dissimilar in my native Canada. So what are we going to do about it?

If we are to continue making meaningful inroads as Hazzanim, we must recognize what the needs of our individual communities are. Having the prettiest voice and the greatest nusach may earn you a position, but it won't keep you in the position.

More daunting

In spite of all the training we may have in music, liturgy, singing or Jewish history, our job today is more daunting than a generation ago.

Cantors and Rabbis need to be more multidimensional than ever before. We need to step outside of our comfort zones and explore programming, music and experiences that inspire and create the spark required for our congregants to enjoy the precious moments they spend in shul.

We know that our congregants crave for meaning on different fronts – particularly through family, community and spirituality. We bring meaning to their life cycle events - they tell us so. Our challenge is to deliver in other areas as well.

My Rabbi and I have spent a good deal of time exploring this matter over the past couple of years. We decided that we had a few options before us. 

We could continue with the status quo in the hope that people would show up, or, we could take the bold steps required to make meaningful advances in what we offer our congregants. Ultimately, we both agreed that we are too young and too full of energy to rely on the first option.

step up our game

Therefore, we have opted to step up our game, put on our raleigh caps, and do what we can to make our shul as relevant as possible to our congregants and Toronto's Jewish community.

It is critical to build relationships with our congregants. They represent the annuity which will yield dividends in perpetuity. We cannot do it alone. The rabbi is our partner, not our boss. Together, Rabbanim and Hazzanim jointly set the tone for the successes and failures of their congregation.

I have never heard of anyone joining a synagogue because a certain individual is the shul president. However, they do join because of who is at the helm spiritually. You must work as a team and believe in what you have to offer your shul. Working together is a key to being successful.

Admit to yourself that you are not perfect and expect to make mistakes throughout the journey. It is important to have a sense of humour and to be able to laugh at yourself.  You won't hit a home run with every new idea, program or melody.

finger on the flame

Make yourself and your position as a Hazzan relevant. As my Rabbi says: "Have your finger on the flame." You must be involved in everything. This includes showing up to all kinds of programs (regardless of whether you deem them to be relevant to your role as the Cantor), returning emails and phone calls in a timely manner, and making those who attend feel welcome and special. Living in the public eye presents its challenges. You must act accordingly at all times. Put on your happy face - your congregants will notice!

Synagogue leaders are drawn to shul life for any number of reasons. As volunteers, they don't share the same accountability as you do. Just like the real world, you don't get to choose your board or committee chairs. Although they are in the minority, there are bullies in the leadership of synagogues who often have little control elsewhere in their lives.

The shul is where they come to assert themselves. Don't get pushed around.  If you act like a wilting flower, you will be treated as one. Fortunately, most synagogue leaders have a profound love of the congregation and offer many hours of their valuable time to do good work. Remember that you are in the trenches, not your shul board. It is your role as the professional to guide them with innovative ideas.

no shortcuts

There are no shortcuts. Attend every shiva, visit every congregant in the hospital, and establish a relationship with the bnai mitzvah families.  While people may not remember everyone who came to their shiva, they won't forget who did not come.

Continue to study with a vocal professional or a repertoire coach. As a vocal athlete, you owe it to yourself to be in the best possible shape. If you have other hidden talents, take the opportunity to showcase them. Your congregants will love to see you play the piano at a concert, even if you have not played it since grade school. Remember to occasionally step outside of your box. 

Although we live in a world with very few mevinim today, don't let the bar sink too low. Always maintain your musical integrity as a Hazzan, remembering to sing a balance of music to engage your congregation. In the end, less is always more.

strive to elevate

Judaism teaches that we should always strive to elevate ourselves. We cannot simply speak about it, we must live by it. If we do not try the things we feel our congregants need to bring meaning and relevance to their synagogue, then we have failed in our task.  Can it be challenging to work for hundreds of families? Absolutely.  Are they always going to support our initiatives? No.  What we should never be found guilty of is complacency. We must stay fresh by continuously reinventing ourselves.

Remember that we have the greatest job in the world. There isn't a city that I travel to where I don't run into people I know. Our greatest resource is people. It is our phenomenal opportunity and privilege to touch the lives of so many.

More than ever before, our role as Cantors (or Rabbis) is vital to synagogue life. Jews are more affluent and successful today than at any other time in Jewish history.  The opportunities and diversions that exist are endless.  The less our congregants crave for Jewish meaning in their lives, the greater our responsibility is to deliver it.

This is our mission...if we choose to accept it!

Eric Moses

Updated 3rd August 2013