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Song is integral to the Jewish faith. Each word in the bible has a sign to show how it should be sung and music is a potent part of the act of Jewish prayer. Indeed most Jewish liturgy is sung or chanted with traditional melodies. This enables participation on every level: vocal, emotional and intellectual. Over the last two thousand years, Nussach (the melodies/modes used for each prayer) have emerged among the traditional liturgical customs of the various Jewish communities – Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Yemenite, Hassidic, and so on and, while synagogue music may be the oldest form of musical notation, it is constantly being refreshed with new compositions for cantors, service leaders, choirs and congregational singing.
Many synagogues employ a professional or lay Chazzan (cantor) for the purpose of leading the congregation in prayer, especially on Shabbat or holidays. Greats of the Cantorial world have included Zavel Kwartin (1874–1953), Moritz Henle (1850–1925), Joseph “Yossele” Rosenblatt (1882–1933), Gershon Sirota (1874–1943), and Leib Glantz. Although traditionally a chazzan was a man, today women can also perform this role except in Orthodox Judaism where a prohibition called Kol isha means that men are generally not allowed to hear women sing. The kol isha prohibition does not apply to women singing zemirot (sacred songs), songs to children, and lamentations for the dead, because in these contexts, men do not derive pleasure from the woman’s voice. In 2005 JMI introduced the first performance of female voices singing liturgical music in the UK at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood. Performers included Jaclyn Chernett, Josée Wolff, Vivienne Bellos, Zoë Jacobs, Cathy Heller-Jones.
Prayer in the synagogue is often recited collectively, yet each member of the congregation prays at their own pace in order to establish a personal connection to God. Heterophony as a texture and expressive technique also relates to Chassidic Nigunim and klezmer music.
JMI encourages the appreciation and practice of cantorial and choral music, across the spectrum of Jewish worship. Past events include a Spanish and Portuguese Choral Weekend featuring Hazan Daniel Halfon, a Children’s Choir Shabbat Programme directed by Stephen Glass and Shalosh R’galim –Three Pilgrim Festivals, a four-day intensive workshop for synagogue musicians on the music of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot with Cantor Josée Wolff (Hebrew Union College, NY) at Leo Baeck College.
JMI also supports the work Tephilharmonic whose aim is to preserve and develop traditional synagogue music in UK Orthodox communities and has enabled the Tephilharmonic Young Cantor of the Year Competition 2008-10.
The International Advisory Board to the JMI on Synagogue music includes Cantor Naftali Herstik (Jerusalem), Cantor Joseph Malovany (New York), Cantor Alberto Mizrahi (Chicago), Cantor Sol Zim (New York) , Cantor Joseph Levine (Philadelphia), Cantor Josee Wolff (New York), Cantor Jaclyn Chernett (London), Victor Tunkel (London and Stephen Glass Director of Music, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal.