To Benjamin Rosner, being a cantor these days has a lot to do with balance.
Newly vested cantors must balance traditional operatic-style liturgical prayer with new, more modern melodies.
They must balance their facilitation of prayer with the host of other tasks cantors are increasingly expected to perform.
And they must balance the music their congregants want to hear — have grown up hearing — with those sounds that are fast finding a place in 21st century Judaism.
Rosner, whose investiture as a Conservative cantor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York was in May, is the newly hired cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom. The congregation plans to welcome its new chazzan on Friday, July 9, with a barbecue dinner followed by Sabbath services.
“People pray in different ways at different times,” Rosner said. While there’s a vital, simultaneous place for cantorial music and congregational singing, “if you have too much chazzunut or too much congregational singing there’s imbalance, and it can’t be as engaging and you don’t have a way to have spiritual progression within a service.”
Rosner and his wife Alyssa moved to Pittsburgh this week. He starts work July 1.
“I see him as the one who brings the music out of the congregation,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow, who was impressed by Rosner’s music range during the interview process. “He is not just the davener, but the teacher of davening. I don’t see him as the only person on the bima every Shabbat, but he will be working with the lay people who daven already.”
Werbow also expects Rosner to help the congregation use music in unconventional ways, by making selections piped into the hallway during the workdays, for instance, or choose musical selections playing in the sanctuary prior to the start of services to set the mood for worship.
A Chicago native, Rosner, 30, also has an extensive resume beyond the synagogue:
•He worked as tutor for a New-based agency, which teaches Jewish studies, b’nai mitza preparation and secular subjects.
•He has studied classical guitar at the University of Miami (Fla.).
•He is an accomplished photographer, whose work can be seen at his Web site, cantorben.com.
Inside the synagogue, he has been a guest cantor at New York area congregations, a cantorial intern at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, N.J., and he sang in the choir of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.
As for striking the right balance between old and new at Beth Shalom, Rosner said that’s a learning experience.
“It goes back to the balance issue, and every synagogue is different. I’m going to learn a lot in the next months I am going to be consulting lay leaders, the previous cantor the rabbi and approach the next months as on-the-job training,” he said.
“I spent five years at JTS and I know a lot of theories,” he added, “but I could be working in the field 30 years and enter a new synagogue and it would still be like testing the waters.”
Rosner believes a cantor today should be “versatile” with modern liturgical music. At the same time, it’s very, very important that cantors don’t forget, and have the ability, to do the operatic style.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)