It's no easy task bringing together 15 cantors for a single concert. "A little bit like herding cats," says Joy Katzen-Guthrie, a cantorial soloist.
Yet the Tampa Bay Cantorial Association does it every year, despite conflicting schedules, pressing demands in their Jewish congregations and community and geographic obstacles.
On Tuesday, the group will perform its ninth annual benefit concert to raise scholarship money to help cantorial students in Reform and Conservative Sacred Music programs. To date, the temple troubadours have raised more than $26,000.
"It's a five-year undertaking. It's a full-time undertaking," says Katzen-Guthrie of the post-graduate program. "The schooling requires an enormous amount of expense and dedication. So this is our way of helping the future generation."
This year's program — "Eilu Ha-Shirim: Songs We Love" — features favorite selections and many original songs by the performers, who come from Sarasota to Palm Harbor. The solo and ensemble pieces, including Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, American, Chasidic and Sephardic, will celebrate a global range of Jewish writers, eras and cultures.
Cantors, also known as a "hazzan," lead the congregation in prayer and song during services. Those who graduate with the specialized degree are ordained clergy, and have the same responsibilities as rabbis. That means they can preside over weddings and burials, perform other rituals and teach. In Orthodox Judaism, the calling is only open to men. Women can serve as cantors in the Reform and Conservative branches.
"You have to have a compassionate heart, and you have to have a mind geared toward demanding scholarship," says Judith Ovadia, of Temple B'nai Israel in Clearwater. What she loves best about her job is being there for people when they are at their most vulnerable. "I find giving counsel and comfort to those who are suffering to be the most rewarding part of the cantorate. At a time when a person feels helpless, I actually can do something to help. There is no greater feeling."
Cantor emeritus Harold Orbach of Parrish brings the most experience to Tuesday's concert. For 40 years, he has served the country's largest Reform synagogue, Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich. He is celebrating his 60th year as a cantor, doing guest performances for area temples and on cruise lines.
"You get to develop a kind of relationship that goes beyond just performance or liturgy," he says. "You get to be part of the community, and the community embraces you."
That he's still singing in his rich tenor voice at 80 is a miracle to him, considering how close he came to dying in the Holocaust. In 1939, when he was 9, Orbach was taken out of Germany and brought to London as part of the "Kindertransport," a rescue effort by Great Britain to harbor Jewish children when Nazi forces began persecuting Jews. Orbach says he was one of the lucky ones to escape: "Many of my friends didn't. They will be forever young," he says.
He began singing at 15. After immigrating to America, he was one of the first graduates of New York's Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music in 1952. His illustrious career has taken him to jazz halls, opera companies and Jewish synagogues over the globe. The joy in serving through song never grows old for him. "So much has changed since I first started. The music is so modern and the responsibilities have grown so much," Orbach says. "But want to know what hasn't changed? It's still the best job in the world."
SONGS WE LOVE
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Congregation Kol Ami, 3919 Moran Road, Tampa
Cost: Suggested donation at the door is $18; no one will be turned away. All proceeds will benefit cantorial students of both Reform and Conservative Sacred Music Study.
Includes: Performances by 15 active and retired cantors singing an eclectic range of traditional, modern and original Jewish music.
Information: (813) 962-6338