Cantors to serenade at local synagogues

By: Sharon Nichols

By one definition, a cantor is a musician who leads a congregation in public prayer. The tradition of having a cantor (chazzan) participate in or lead services goes back to biblical times. In ancient days, the chazzan had to possess many qualifications, among them a pleasant voice and appearance, an artistic delivery, a spotless moral reputation, humility and a flowing beard. These requirements were somewhat relaxed for the holidays. The flowing beard pre-requisite implied that most cantors of the time were men. Betty Robbins, the world’s first woman cantor, was appointed in July 1955 to the Reform congregation of Temple Avodah in Oceanside, NY. A musical background, voice and personality have survived as some of the more modern criteria for a cantor.

The upstate New York region is fortunate to anticipate the appearance of talented cantors for the upcoming High Holidays. Some have served in this capacity for many years, others are relatively new. They each bring a unique background and set of experiences. There is no typical template for a cantor.

Cantor Freyda Black

Temple Concord, Binghamton


In May, 2007, Cantor Freyda Black graduated from the cantorial program at Gratz College in Melrose Park, PA. Before exploring this career path, she had training in classical music, conservatory, opera performance and professional theater training. "Singing has always been my personal way of reaching out to God," she said.

Originally from Brooklyn, she now resides in the Elmira area with her husband, Jim, and their son. They joined Temple B’nai Israel and informally, Congregation Shomray Hadath. In 2000, while Rabbi Mimi Biatch was on vacation, she volunteered to lead a service. It turned out that they jointly led the service. In the process, Biatch declared "you have to become a cantor." This struck a chord with Black and, with the rabbi’s continued encouragement, she soon began studies at Gratz.

"Although I have avoided completely affiliating with any one movement, I equally enjoy attending and serving in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal congregations," she said. This is her first time at Temple Concord although she is familiar with the area and visited Hanukkah House with her young son.

"I look forward to introducing the congregations of Temple Israel and Temple Concord to nigunim (wordless melodies) and the kavannah of teshuvah (the intention of repentance/return) at the joint Selichot service on September 24," Black said.

Cantor Claman (C.J.) Glass

Temple Beth-El, Ithaca


Cantor Claman Glass’s initiation into leading part of a service occurred at an early age when as a little boy on the bima, he sang adon olam with his father, Rabbi Scott Glass, who has been the rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Ithaca for decades. Since 2002, the younger Glass has assisted leading High Holidays services. He has led High Holiday services at Temple Beth-El since 2009.

Glass has two degrees in jazz studies, one from Ithaca College and one from the Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queens College. He received several types of singing coaching and education from well-known performers. Since moving to Queens, he attends services in a number of area congregations. He has been active in Jewish life at Queens College and led services with Rabbi Moshe Shur, a leading figure in Jewish music.

This year, his band, the Adam Ramsay-C.J. Glass Quintet, will play a pre-Selichot concert on Saturday, September 24, at 9 pm, at Temple Beth-El, Ithaca.

He said, "I’m grateful to have grown up in a home where I heard Jewish songs and in a community with a rich tradition of singing during Shabbat and holiday services. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by a circle of Torahs… and chanting Kol Nidre while your father stands next to you."

Cantor Gladys Gruenwald

Temple Israel, Vestal (Rosh Hashanah)


Cantor Gladys Gruenwald graduated from and was ordained in May by the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY. She previously served as High Holidays cantor in a variety of locations, including Paris, France, and on Long Island. She is presently a part-time cantor with Congregation Tehillah in Riverdale and runs the Hebrew school in conjunction with the rabbi.

Gruenwald noted that her father was a "frustrated cantor" and she grew up surrounded by cantorial music. However, when she was making career choices, women were not allowed to be cantors. In her first career, she was a high school music major and taught special education in Manhattan schools. She speaks Hebrew and Yiddish.

"I’m a synagogue person from way back," she said. "Becoming a cantor tied my background together, rounded it out." She feels a positive connection to Rabbi Tziona Szajman and looks forward to being in Vestal.

Cantor Jeff Gunzenhauser

Temple Israel, Vestal (Yom Kippur)


Cantor (Doctor) Jeff Gunzenhauser has been a cantor intermittently since medical school. As a child, he learned traditional and Israeli melodies from "a wonderful cantor" in his shul. He found himself in the role of cantor when his synagogue’s cantor was unable to come to the U.S. from Israel one year. He was selected to fill in. He’s served as cantor with Temple Israel for a few years and has been affiliated with Beth David Synagogue.

Cantor Abbe Lyons

Congregation Tikkun v’Or, Ithaca


Cantor Abbe Lyons was a cantorial soloist and service leader from 1996-2001 and a student cantor from 2002-2008. In January 2010, she was ordained, having studied with the ALEPH Ordination Cantorial Program. Lyons was among the first three females to be ordained as cantors in Jewish Renewal movement. She also has a music degree in voice performance from Ithaca College.

This will be her 10th year at Congregation Tikkun v’Or. She is a member of the Women’s Cantor Network and the Guild of Temple Musicians. She notes, "I have been influenced in my professional training in the Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education." This summer she had the opportunity to study the Baal Shem Tov on Dvekut with Rabbi Burt Jacobson.

Cantor Barbara Roberts

Temple Beth El, Oneonta


Coming from a musical family, Cantor Barbara Roberts sang in choirs and choruses, including the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC, and choruses in Miami. She decided to begin formal voice training since she was becoming a choral paid professional. Like a movie storyline, her voice teacher was Rabbi Donald Neil Roberts, whom she later married. It was this relationship that fostered her interest and involvement in cantorial music. She no longer sings in choirs.

Roberts was a cantorial soloist for five years in Milwaukee and for nearly 20 years at Temple Beth El in Oneonta, where her husband is rabbi. He is trained as a cantor and they participate together at services. He chants the traditional melodies and she does the more modern Israeli versions.

Cantor Moshe Shmaryahu

Beth David Synagogue, Binghamton


Cantor Moshe Shmaryahu has been the chazzan at Beth David for the High Holidays for 15 years, ever since he and his family returned to Israel after living in Binghamton for four years. A sabra himself, his parents emigrated to Israel from Yemen. He is adept at Yemenite prayers as well as the Ashkenazi (European) traditions and melodies. He noted that his father, uncle and grandfather had beautiful voices, and he has always loved Jewish music.

Shmaryahu was accepted into the Yuval Choir, a prestigious men’s group in Israel, which is conducted by Dr. Mordechai Sobol. He continues private instruction and self-study. Shmaryahu sings at his own synagogue in Elkana and makes guest appearances throughout Israel. He relates that he has been a cantor "for the past 20 years or so. You can say that with that, I found my calling."