TORONTO — Some 200 cantors will gather in Toronto for the 64th annual Cantors Assembly convention from May 22 to 26, the first time the event is being held in Canada.
Cantor Steven Stoehr
The CA, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement but also has members from other denominations, is the largest cantors organization in the world.
With just under 600 members, the assembly is the “largest, most powerful and most influential organization of cantors,” according to Beny Maissner, cantor at Holy Blossom Temple and co-chair of the convention with fellow cantors Simon Spiro of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation and Steven Stoehr of Congregation Beth Shalom in Chicago.
Stoehr, a former CA president, told The CJN last week that one of the biggest issues facing cantors in recent years is a need to reinvent themselves.
Twenty or 30 years ago, he said, it was often enough to be an inspiring liturgist. But now, in addition to that, synagogues look for cantors whose skills may include fundraising, nursing home visits and teaching, and who may need to meet higher standards of devoutness than in the past.
One indication of changing times – not only in the role of cantors but in society in general – is a session Stoehr is leading on the chevra kadisha and transgendered adults. Stoehr, who runs a chevra kadisha in Chicago, said participants will study rabbinic tshuvot so they will become more knowledgeable about and sensitive to the issues.
Sessions like that help cantors become “better partners to our rabbinic colleagues, and a better resource to our communities.”
Another session will be set aside for female cantors, who have been ordained in the Conservative movement only since the late 1980s. Facilitators will be Toronto social worker Beth Feffer, and Cantor Erica Lippitz, of New Jersey. Equal pay to their male counterparts and an “uphill climb” to acceptance are issues that are particular to female cantors, Stoehr said.
He said the convention serves as “a safe haven” to discuss pressures of the cantorate and a way for participants to expand their horizons. “We all come back feeling rejuvenated, and serve our congregations better.”
Spiro is particularly excited about the convention’s tie-in with Jewish Music Week, which is being held for the first time in Toronto to coincide with the convention and extends to May 29.
“For me the main thing is that it’s not a closed-door convention,” Spiro said. “It’s really very spectacularly exciting.”
Spiro’s wife Aliza – who is also a cantor but now works as a singer and songwriter – spearheaded the organization of Jewish Music Week. The two events have some joint programs that are open to the public, including a concert the first night of the convention featuring music of Canadian Jewish composers, which will include a tribute to Cantor Louis Danto of Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, who died last year.
There will also be a memorial tribute to Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman, who died in January, as well as a performance of the Shinonome Chorus of Japan, singing in Yiddish and Hebrew, which will be part of Holy Blossom Temple’s musical series. The latter event will also honour Toronto composer Ben Steinberg.
As well, there will be informal late-night concerts that have typically been for convention participants only. “That’s when the cantors let their hair down – metaphorically speaking,” Spiro said
For the Monday night concert, on May 23, the CA will bestow its highest honour, the Kavod Award, on award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, who has written a new Shehechiyanu (which is the theme of the convention) for the event.
The convention is being held at the Marriott Eaton Centre, with some evening events being held at different locations. Further information about events that are open to the public can be found at jewishmusicweek.com/schedule.