As Shirat Hayam’s cantor is ordained, some wonder, ‘What exactly is ‘Renewal’?

ALEPH Dean of Students Hazzan Diana Brewer participates in the ordination of Cantor Sarah Freudenberger.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott was ordained in January, culminating more than five years’ training at the ALEPH Ordination Program, a Renewal-style program that promotes global Jewish music.

Candidates study classical Ashkenazi musical motifs as well as other genres, such as Sephardic. Graduates are able to navigate and lead in a wide variety of contexts, blending both traditional and contemporary styles.

Although she worked as a full-time cantor since her college graduation, Cantor Sarah ran into barriers when she discovered that mainstream seminaries didn’t accept students with non-Jewish partners.

“Even though I wanted to learn, I couldn’t,” she said.

Finally, she discovered ALEPH, a program founded by Reb Zalman, who believed that music is the carrier of the Jewish message. She chose ALEPH both because it was welcoming and, more importantly, because of its robust and comprehensive curriculum and respected reputation.

AOP dates its origins back to the mid-1970s, and progressively evolved over the course of four decades to where it is today.

It all started in Somerville in 1968. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – “Reb Zalman” – was instrumental in the founding of Havurat Shalom, a collective egalitarian spiritual community. He was a visionary pioneer in contemporary Jewish life. His ideas and work influenced the birth of the Havurah movement and the international Jewish Renewal movement.

In 2000, he engaged Hazzan Jack Kessler to develop a new kind of program that would train cantors who are grounded in tradition, but who could also keep Jewish music alive, relevant, and growing into the future. The two agreed this training would encompass additional skills that go beyond vocal performance and the knowledge that was once sufficient for someone to be called a cantor.

By 2001, Reb Zalman had ordained three hazzanim. He then turned over the effort to Hazzan Jack, who created a comprehensive program that embraces traditional and contemporary Jewish musical and liturgical creativity.
As of 2022, ALEPH has ordained 30 cantors. Cantor Sarah is the only cantor ordained in the 2022/5782 class.

Cantor Sarah Freudenberger

Conservative synagogues like Shirat Hayam are bringing in Renewal melodies, percussion, meditative prayer experiences, healing prayers, and an array of Renewal-style approaches to making communal prayer dynamic and participatory, Hazzan Jack explained.

“We believe that synagogues can once again become magnets for Jewish spiritual seekers, Jewish families, and anyone who cares about the continuity of Jewish life, where we can find prayer experiences that elevate our souls and activate our best selves. This is our commitment,” he said.

Cantor Sarah and Hazzan Jack at her ALEPH ordination

ALEPH Executive Director SooJi Min-Maranda reported an uptick in younger applicants who transfer from a more traditional seminary where they didn’t feel their approach to spirituality quite fit. “Most say they are excited about the way ALEPH brings emotional relevance to Jewish life,” she said.

Yet, for many lay people, two huge questions still remain unanswered: What exactly is meant by “Renewal?” And how can a synagogue be both Reform/Conservative/Orthodox and part of the Renewal movement?

Shaul Magid, the Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and author of the seminal book, “American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society,” spoke with the Journal.

From the beginning, according to Magid, Reb Zalman did not envision Renewal as a new Jewish denomination, but rather as a new vision that could revive late 20th-century Judaism. “He wanted different communities to adopt pieces of that vision as it suited its own inclinations,” he said. “Renewal offers a different template and assumes we are living in a new global [and not only Jewish] era that demands a more radical reevaluation of how we engage and encounter Jewish life.”

At Shirat Hayam, the Renewal approach informs services and life-cycle rituals. “The synagogue experience, particularly prayer, must be accessible, meaningful, and leave people feeling transformed,” said Rabbi Michael Ragozin.

“Perfunctory ritual has failed to maintain the vibrancy of Jewish life. Renewal Judaism offers an approach to revitalizing Jewish practice.”

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