East Bay cantor wants Reform Jews to hum a few bars

Reform Jewish songs may never soar to the top of the pop charts, but congregants could find their toes tapping and their voices warbling more often.

That's the prediction of Cantor Stephen Richards of Walnut Creek's Congregation B'nai Tikvah — and the desire of leaders of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Over the next 100 years, "the music will probably reflect much more of the American culture than it does today," Richards said in a recent interview.

Richards was a scholar-in-residence earlier this year at Oakland's Reform Temple Sinai, where he focused on Jewish music and prayer.

The Reform movement has long supported choirs and cantors with showy, well-orchestrated solo performances. But Reform leaders now see popular, singable songs as a way to draw Jews back to services.

Richards' talk at Temple Sinai came on the heels of Rabbi Eric Yoffie's speech at a UAHC conference in December.

Distressed by low attendance at congregational services, the UAHC's president called for "a new Reform revolution" that creates a "collective partnership of rabbi, cantor and lay person."

Citing music as a path to touching congregants spiritually, Yoffie noted that "many of us have lost our voices. The music of prayer has become what it was never meant to be: a spectator sport."

Richards agrees.

"What Rabbi Yoffie was saying is that really in order to make prayer more meaningful to our congregants, we have to give the music back to them — to give the congregants more of an ownership of the music," Richards said.

Rather than eliminating the cantor and choir, Reform leaders can offer that sense of ownership by introducing songs that are easier for congregants to sing, Richards said.

To some degree, that's already been happening in recent years with the introduction of music inspired by camp songs and Israeli melodies.

"The popularity was that people could sing them," Richards said.

He doesn't see Yoffie's message as a call for eliminating more traditional music from services, however.

"A lot of the popular and folk-influenced tunes are fine and we need to have them, but we also need to not ignore traditions," he said. "The tunes that come from the camps or popular writers don't reflect what happened in the Jewish past. We need to keep those in our worship, also."

The push for more singable music in Reform congregations could create some tension, Richards acknowledged.

"A lot of people like the music within the synagogue and are reluctant to give it up," he said. "Cantors, music directors and composers want to do something other than compose folk-like tunes for people to sing."

Richards himself admits that he is torn. As a composer, he has been drawn to complex pieces designed for a choir, instruments and a listening audience.

But Richards estimates that 90 percent of the music he schedules at B'nai Tikvah is participatory.

"I'd say our music brings out the joy of the Sabbath, and we try to involve people in that feeling as soon as the music begins," he said. "I may do one chant in the service that people will stop singing and listen to."

But participatory singing isn't the only means to get congregants involved, he added. "As long as a good part of the service allows people to pray while there's singing, [they] can sit and just be moved by the music."

For certain services, such as Yom Kippur's Kol Nidre, "just the act of listening brings about an emotional response," Richards said.

In addition, the design of the temple or the spot where a cantor chooses to sing can affect congregants' involvement in services. Richards thinks that some congregations with high bimahs and fixed pews can make it "a little harder to engage people than in less formal settings.

"At our place, I always begin the service right out in the sanctuary. I usually start right out on the floor with the congregants to give them a little warm-up."

Richards sees Jewish music and his role in it as evolutionary.

"When I first got into the Jewish music field it was as a composer and with the attitude that I was going to write new, contemporary music for people to listen to in the synagogue. But working as a cantor for over 30 years, I've done a complete turn."

His goal now is "to inspire people and to make them feel good about the Sabbath, the service and good about being together."