The Arty Semite

Reform and Conservative Come Together in Song

By Menachem Wecker

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When 31 students from Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School and Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music perform together on May 4, the concert will be the first interdenominational collaboration of this sort that David Tilman can remember.

Years ago, there were “very significant” differences between the Conservative and Reform movements, but recent years have seen a narrowing gap, says Tilman, associate professor at the Miller Cantorial School and hazzan emeritus at Beth Sholom Congregation of Elkins Park, PA.

Both JTS and HUC teach musicianship; prayer modes (nusach) for the weekdays, Sabbath, festivals and High Holidays; biblical cantillation; and Jewish musical history, he says, and both schools require students to learn guitar, “recognizing the importance of this instrument as an effective teaching tool for children, teenagers, and adults.”

JTS and HUC share music faculty, such as Jacob Mendelson and Joyce Rosenzweig, who will co-conduct the concert with Tilman. Bruce Ruben, the director of HUC’s music school, is a JTS alumnus, and Henry Rosenblum, JTS’s former dean, teaches at HUC.

“There was a time that most Reform congregations had organs, either pipe or electronic, that accompanied all services. Now, Reform congregations are utilizing all forms of instrumental accompaniments: keyboards, guitars, percussion instruments, woodwind instruments,” says Tilman. “There was a time that most Conservative congregations had no accompaniment; now many congregations use the same combination of instruments, especially on Friday evening.”

Both movements, he notes, try to “present music that will be transformative, that will bring God’s presence into the lives of their congregants, and that will bring the prayers of their congregants to the Almighty.” And although the respective movements have different compositions, “here too, there is much repertoire exchange, assuming that the liturgy contains the same language.”

The May 4 event, which will begin at 7 p.m. and will be held at JTS’s Feinberg Auditorium, will feature 31 young men and women who are studying to become cantors. The program, according to Tilman, will celebrate Israel’s Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut), which begins the following evening, with works by Israeli composers.

The event will also feature the world premiere of “Hallel” by JTS rabbinical school student Michael Summa, which won the Guild of Temple Musicians’ 2014 Young Composer Award. “Hallel,” according to Tilman, contains seven movements, and is scored for children’s and adult choir, as well as “hand-clapping” or percussion.

“It is exciting and very eclectic in style,” Tilman says of the work. “It is a great setting of the Psalms of Praise that comprise the traditional Hallel section of the service.”


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