Will the bad economy leave more cantors singing a sad tune

The American Conference of Cantors held its annual conclave in San Francisco a few months ago, and apparently everyone was singing a happy tune. None of the 300 or so cantors who attended were whispering in hotel halls or between workshops that they’re fretting about job security — or so the organization’s president told me last week.

Come again?!

Based on what I know, cantors already are being laid off, and the situation could get even worse if the economy continues to spiral downward. This is something we need to realize is going on.

I happen to know of one small synagogue in the Bay Area where the annual budget needed to be trimmed, so — whack! — goodbye cantor. I’ve also heard about a few other cantors in other places suffering a similar fate.

One was a part-timer (two Shabbats a month and major holidays) for five years. A new rabbi was hired at a slightly higher salary than the previous rabbi. Bam! Goodbye cantor.

So I have to wonder: When a synagogue board of directors needs to reduce its budget, will the first place it looks be squarely at the cantor? It’s not a widespread phenomenon just yet, but might we be on the precipice of an epidemic?

The Bay Area cantor who is losing his job put out an Internet feeler on the topic, and discovered “quite a few cantors who say this seems to be a trend.” (Note: Want me to rat out who this cantor is? Well, I ain’t singin’ — “he” might not even be a “him” for all you know.)

“Given the choice of letting a rabbi go or a cantor, it’s always going to be the cantor,” he said. “People feel the need for a rabbi much more, we have a rabbinical tradition. So what’s happening economically will affect cantors. I think that’s just the way it’s going to be. It’s not maliciously directed at cantors, trying to get rid of them. It’s just that in these times, that’s what’s happening.”

Many congregations these days are struggling to make ends meet. Not only is membership down, but even active members are sloughing off on their dues or not paying them at all — needing to put more of the family’s budget toward staples such as food, fuel, iPhones and the Dish Network. Donations and fundraising are in the tank.

“In economic downturns, religion is particularly hard hit,” the soon-to-be-fired cantor told me. “Religious institutions often have trouble covering their basic costs, so many are scaling back staffing in order to survive.”

This is no shocking revelation. We read about layoffs all the time in the newspaper industry, in auto manufacturing, in construction, in the financial-services sector.

Not that we’ll be adding the “cantor industry” to that list, but in the coming years, synagogues might need to cut staff more and more.

Is the cantor the most expendable person? After all, someone else can usually get up on the bimah and sing, or a freelance cantor can be hired. Or maybe a synagogue has a rabbi with a mellifluous voice, or will hatch a plan to hire one.

At my small synagogue, there are four permanent paid positions: a rabbi, a cantor, a director of religious school and a three-quarter-time administrator. Which could we most easily get by without? Is the answer obvious?

Kay Greenwald, the cantor emerita at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and one year into her three-year term as president of the American Conference of Cantors, denied that cantor positions are on the block.

“To my knowledge, in general this is not a problem,” she said. “I will say this: There are challenges facing the Reform movement today … In any age, there are going to be challenges, and people have to rise to the occasion and deal with the challenges.”

Greenwald did say that job postings for cantors these days feature more and more listings for part-time and three-quarter-time jobs. “But I don’t see the full-time cantor disappearing,” she added.

Try telling that to the cantor quoted in this column, who three months ago essentially was given one year to clear out his locker.

“Will sing ‘Eliyanu HaNavi’ for food”: Let’s hope we don’t start seeing that sign at the foot of off-ramps.

Andy Altman-Ohr is a j. copy editor. Reach him at [email protected]

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.