In Harmony: People and Music

Voices of the Conservative Movement

by Hazzan Sam Weiss

Thirteen years ago, Richard Skolnik, then United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism direct marketing vice president, was driven by a life-long desire to bring the beauty and variety of Conservative cantorial music into United Synagogue homes. He eventually found a very willing and able partner with a great deal of recording and studio experience in Hazzan David Propis, who was similarly a vice president in his organization, the Cantors Assembly.

In 2002 they produced The Spirit of Shabbat, the first in what was to become a hugely successful annual joint project of United Synagogue and the Cantors Assembly called The Spirit Series: Voices of the Conservative Movement. Subsequent albums were devoted to Israel, the High Holy Days, Passover, Chanukkah, Jewish Weddings, Jewish World Music, Shalom, and Jewish Children’s Music. In addition, a Best of the Spirit Series album was issued as volume 8. Hear some sample songs at the bottom of this page.

Each of these high-quality recordings showcases the wide range of voices, genres, styles, and languages that comprise today’s Conservative cantorial music. Along with serious compositions there are many toe-tapping melodies, familiar selections and some that are newly composed. Young and old, male and female, the hazzanim are accompanied by everything from a single guitar to a full orchestra. Choruses and children’s choirs are heard, as well. Cantors known only in their own communities get a chance to shine alongside some superstars.

The Spirit of Healing, due in 2014, will undergo the same careful, painstaking process as earlier editions. A committee of twelve, divided among cantors and United Synagogue lay leaders and chaired by Skolnik and Propis, chooses a theme. Then a call for submissions goes to all Cantors Assembly hazzanim, which can result in hundreds of titles for consideration.

Decisions for inclusion are based on musical quality, recording quality, audience appeal, etc. Propis then supervises the studio production, polishing and evening up the audio of the individual tracks and creating a coherent album. Meanwhile, I edit the original and transliterated lyrics, translate them, and write the liner notes that accompany each CD. Others get busy choosing artwork for the cover while Irwin Scharf, chair of USCJ’s direct mail committee, marshals his team for the delivery of as many as 70,000 copies of each year’s CD package.

Although this venture has turned out to be very profitable, Propis and Skolnik – who both went on to become presidents of their respective organizations and still chair the project – insist that money was never the primary objective. Propis wanted to encourage his members’ creativity in composing, arranging and performing, and to provide them with a vehicle for recording studio experience. At the same time he wanted to present worthwhile “edutainment” for Conservative families.

United Synagogue’s Skolnik points out that his boyhood cantor, Hazzan Sol Mendelson, instilled in him a love for liturgical music and laid the seeds of his future involvement in Jewish communal life. He echoes Hazzan Propis’s excitement that The Spirit Series has allowed the cantorial voice to extend beyond individual congregations and reach the USCJ membership on an otherwise impossible scale. He is equally excited by how the CD project has provided a model for organizational cooperation and accomplishment.

Hear samples:

From The Best of the Spirit Series:

From The Spirit of Jewish Children’s Music:

Hazzan Sam Weiss serves the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, Congregation Beth Tikvah, in Paramus, New Jersey.