U.S. Jewish Cantors In Rome

ROME (CNS) — Twenty cantors from U.S. Reformed Jewish congregations filled an ancient Roman basilica with the melodies of Psalms and other Scriptures in an attempt to share their heritage with a Catholic audience.

The cantors, who are considered clergy in the Reformed tradition, belong to the American Conference of Cantors and were in Rome Nov. 14-18 for the concert, meetings with Vatican officials and discussions with local Catholics.

They also attended Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly general audience Nov. 17.

“Catholic-Jewish dialogue has been mostly an intellectual exercise, but the future lies in people sharing their culture and music” and relating to one another as neighbors, said Rabbi Mark Winer, the retired rabbi of England’s West London Synagogue. The rabbi, a U.S. citizen, accompanied the group to Rome.

Claire Franco, cantor at the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, N.Y., coordinated the program in Rome and sang the solo on “Al Tifgi Vi,” a Hebrew and English composition by a Canadian composer using a passage from the Book of Ruth.

“We’re here to send the message that music has the power to bridge different cultures and religions,” Franco said.

The Jewish cantors all hold master’s degrees in sacred music and study Scripture, counseling and administration alongside rabbis. They become cantors when they are invested in a rite involving the laying on of hands, “smicha” in Hebrew, Franco said.

In addition to leading services, the cantors can officiate at weddings, funerals and baby-naming ceremonies, she said.

Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, the cantor and congregational leader of the Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, N.J., said that in addition to leading services and accompanying members of the congregation, “cantors carry on a train of tradition through music. In Judaism, traditionally all of our service is chanted.”

Introducing a musical setting of Psalm 23 — which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd,” — David Margules of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Calif., said, “As cantors, we deliver the word of God. We are with our people in their happiest times and in times of suffering and sorrow.”

Gunther Lawrence, executive director of the Interreligious Information Center in New York and a frequent organizer of Catholic-Jewish dialogue events, organized the trip for the cantors as part of what he said was an ongoing effort to help regular Catholics and Jews get to know each other and each other’s traditions.

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