In times of shrinking synagogue attendance, membership and, perhaps most importantly, budgets, lay leaders are more and more often being faced with what feels like the zero-sum question of whether or not to employ or retain a hazzan (cantor). The thinking goes something like this:

“We love our cantor but we’re just not sure if we can afford to keep someone on staff just to lead services.”

The word “just” in that sentence is really the key word, and one which I personally find somewhat perplexing.

Or this.

“Our rabbi and our congregants are knowledgeable, like to sing and can lead our services. We don’t need a hazzan.”

We know from the historical record that when communities retained hazzanim, they rarely did so with the intention that their hazzan would do nothing but sit around all day thinking up new ways to sing the Musaf Kedushah. So that’s not so different than what we have now. And yet, in the present day, many Jews have nonetheless come to view the hazzan as a full-time functionary whose sole occupation is to serve as shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader).

And they believe this despite the fact that most of them--having been taught by their hazzan in Hebrew school, having been tutored by their hazzan for Bar or Bat Mitzvah, having learned music with their hazzan, having studied the prayers with their hazzan, having had a hazzan officiate at their wedding, or their child’s bris, or their parent’s or grandparent’s funeral, or even having been visited in the hospital by their hazzan--know quite well what a hazzan does all day from personal experience.

That people can even ask the question simply blows my mind.

Setting my personal feelings aside, however, it would just never occur to those people to ask that same question of their rabbis. To be sure, there are numerous areas of overlap in our respective job descriptions. Nonetheless, when faced with real financial exigencies and believing the rabbi’s job to be absolutely non-negotiable, the vast majority of lay leaders will choose to retain their rabbi at the hazzan’s expense (no pun intended). In the social milieu we occupy, there is great apparent wisdom in that approach.

But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

More and more, congregations that actually have the budget to support a second (or more) clergy salary are actively choosing to “trade-in” their hazzanim for assistant rabbis.

Though every congregation will have its own reasons for doing so, I just want to ask a simple question:

Without a hazzan, who will sing with the children?

It’s a simple question, but the answer is deceptively complex.

Let’s say you’re lucky enough to get a new assistant rabbi knows how to sing, and even plays the guitar or keyboard. Maybe he/she was even a songleader at Ramah or some other camp. You’re home free, right? Case closed.

Maybe...if you’re one of the select few congregations to can actually find that kind of rabbi. The rest of you are out of luck. Pinning your cantorial succession strategy on finding a talented singing rabbi,there’s a very good chance that you will be disappointed.

But let’s say it’s not important to you to find an assistant rabbi who knows how to sing. You’ll just hire a songleader to sing with your kids.

If your shul happens to be located in a large metropolitan area like NYC or LA, there are dozens of fine Jewish musicians who are knowledgeable about Jewish music, especially music for children, and who can fill the role of leading your children in song, from early childhood and Hebrew school all the way through teens.

But what if you don’t live in a community where fine Jewish musical educators grow on trees?

Finding a musical educator who has the wide-ranging mix of skills you need to teach children of all ages may not be so easy.

Putting aside that question for the moment, though, let’s say you do live in such a community.

Let’s say you were able to find a really good songleader to teach music to your shul’s kids. You’ll be happy. You’re kids will be happy. And your parents will be happy...for a little while. The problem comes when you’re only able to promise a few hours of work per week, at most, for the perfect musician. What you will soon discover is that your perfect solution is only temporary.

Musicians need to make a living, just like everyone else, and part-time jobs come and go. When the job(s) that enabled your musician to be available for your job suddenly change (even in the middle of the school year), or when the right agent or producer recognizes the talent that you saw right from the beginning, you will find yourself interviewing for a new songleader. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in a deep enough market that the next “perfect fit” will be just a few emails away.

I live in just such a deep market, and I can tell you from personal experience that even in such a place, finding gifted musical educators is still not easy. One shul where I worked went through three songleaders in 4 years. It’s hard enough running a Hebrew School without having to constantly interview for new educators, but it’s even harder when those educators are specialists in art or music.

But that’s just a personnel problem. The real problems go much deeper than that.

Let’s talk about training. Most Jewish musicians only know the songs they themselves learned in Hebrew school. That’s a pretty limited repertoire. If they’re Israeli, they may come pre-programmed with a wide range of Israeli songs, too. To be sure, we want our children to learn these songs because they are the songs we learned as children. We learned those songs to celebrate holidays, to learn about Israel and to pray. It only makes sense we would want our children to learn them, too.

It may seem obvious, but Jewish music isn’t set in stone. Just as there are “timeless” melodies that we want our children to learn, there is an active and vibrant modern Jewish music scene, energized by the Jewish camping movement, among other influences, that has led to a need to stay abreast of the most recent songs and musical trends, and to build curricula around those trends.

The task of building curricula is not the task of a musician. It is the task of an educator.

Then there’s the question of Hebrew. Most Jewish musicians don’t usually know a whole lot of Hebrew. To be sure, ISRAELI musicians know more than enough Hebrew (in some contexts), but your run-of-the-mill Jewish musician knows about as much Hebrew as he/she learned in Hebrew school in preparation for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, which in many cases is, sadly, very little.

Such musicians can easily learn how to teach Hebrew songs from transliteration, but how effective will they really be at imparting the meaning and power and poetry of the words to their students?

Or let’s approach this question from a different angle? How important is it for our kids to know the meaning of the words? They’re just songs, after all...right?

If we ask ourselves how important it is for us to know the meaning of the words when we attend services, I believe the answer is fairly obvious: the less we understand, the less we care.

And the less we care, the less likely we are to show up, or make Jewish prayer or community a part of our lives, or pass it on to our own children. Do we really think it’s any different for our children?

So, it goes without saying that we need our musicians to understand the words they’re singing.

And what about getting our children to sing together in choirs, one of the most impactful Jewish experiences that our children can have outside of a camp setting? Most Jewish musicians are not trained in even the basics of leading or conducting choirs. They may succeed in creating a meaningful experience for the children, but it is far less assured than it is under the direction of a trained professional.

Time and time again, when asked about some of their most memorable experiences in shul, attendees point to times when the children sang Adon Olam at the end of services or some other special melody that they learned for the occasion. Similarly, when asked about Jewish experiences that are indelibly etched in their memories, children of all ages, including teens and college age young adults, will talk about the bonds formed when they sang in their synagogue choir.

Witness the explosion in recent years of Jewish a cappella groups on college campuses. Some of the most committed members of such groups are “graduates” of youth and synagogue choirs who yearned for more.

Up until now, I’ve only focused on the strictly musical aspect of working with the children, but there are other critical pieces that synagogues lack when they choose not to have a hazzan. A hazzan is specially trained to be an essential musical and spiritual leader who infuses all aspects of synagogue life with an authentic and emotional connection to Jewish tradition.

Most communities without hazzanim don’t have anyone who specializes in training students for Bar/Bat Mitzvah. You may think that that’s what the rabbi does. Or tutors. Heck, nowadays, there are even online services that offer their services for a reasonable price and schedule lessons at a time of the student’s choosing. I know a number of such services and, admittedly, many people have good experiences with them.

But the rabbi’s primary function isn’t normally teaching B’nai Mitzvah. Most rabbis I know are consumed with the details of devising, planning and executing exciting and meaningful congregational programs, preparing for and teaching adult education courses, preparing sermons, and counseling and visiting congregants in need, among other pressing duties. Rabbis are often also their shul’s primary fundraiser and are deeply involved in the workings of most, if not all, critical committees, not to mention their central role as arbiter of disputes and magnet for shul politics.

Even rabbis who are gifted Torah chanters are simply not trained how to teach cantillation, the musical language used to chant from the Torah and other holy texts. Hazzanim are.

In fact, most rabbinical students have to pick up these skills as they can, overburdened as they already are with their required coursework.

Important as teaching our children how to sing our songs and chant from our holy texts, there’s one often-overlooked advantage that synagogues with hazzanim enjoy over those that don’t. Clergy are, by definition, authority figures. And with that authority comes a certain feeling of trepidation among congregants.

Contrast that with the role a hazzan can play in a community. Rabbis, by virtue of their role as being the spiritual leader of a community--and through no fault of their own--can be perceived as unapproachable. A charismatic hazzan, on the other hand, can serve as a “pied piper” of sorts, leading both children and adults in song throughout all aspects of synagogue life. Because of the inherent emotional connections music builds when people sing together, the hazzan is almost always seen as more approachable than the rabbi.

A capable hazzan, in conjunction with the rabbi, will be able to build upon that natural strength to establish deep and abiding relationships with congregants of all ages for the benefit of the entire community.

Ultimately, a hazzan is far more than a leader of services. He or she is an essential musical and spiritual leader who enlivens and enriches all aspects of synagogue life. Singing with the hazzan enables the children--the next generation--of your congregation to build not only a lifelong connection with your clergy but with your synagogue and the Jewish world. The strength of that connection will in large part determine the importance they place upon Jewish life and culture when the time comes to pass their heritage on to their children.

That’s what can happen when a hazzan sings with your children.

(Agree? Disagree? Please leave your comments below.)