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Survey on Liturgical Music

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Thank you to the many people to responded to my survey. Here’s the paper I wrote, with your input. Since I currently am not sure how to insert the charts and graphs, they aren’t included here right now.

Marian Kleinman

January, 2012

Gratz College

Sociology of the American Jewish Community


Survey of Today’s Liturgical Music


Creating and administering a survey about Jewish liturgical music today was an incredible learning experience for me. While I learned about the ways people use liturgical music today, and how denomination impacts the way music is used, I also learned that it's complicated to create a good survey. Participants pointed out a number of flaws in my questions.


In my survey, I sought to discover how people feel about nusach, “popular” music, and the use of instruments as elements in synagogue worship. As I prepared my survey, I sought to answer questions such as:


• Is there correlation between the type of synagogue music used and the level of participation? 

• Is there any correlation between the rabbi's support or the ritual committee's support of the cantor using nusach, and the amount of nusach used? 

• Is participation during services increased by offering 1) adult t'filah classes, 2) online recordings, 3) recordings (CDs, cassettes)? 

• What is the general feeling about musical instruments being employed on Shabbat and holidays -- is this being accepted in affiliations other than Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionism?


The data I gathered didn’t completely answer all of these questions, yet it exposed some unexpected information about liturgical music and congregational politics, providing me with an intriguing framework for further research.



My survey included 34 questions. Some of them were basic "demographics" questions. Others focused on the key issues I was exploring, the use of musical instruments, the use of nusach, and various ways cantors include the congregation and are supported by the Ritual committees. For a full list of the questions and answers, see attached survey summary.



I sent my survey link to three Jewish list-serves, thus inviting 3 groups of people to participate in this survey. The three list-serves are the AJR (Academy for Jewish Religion) Student/Alum list-serve, Hanashir (Hava Nashira), and WCN (Women Cantors’ Network).


Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR)

Founded in 1956 as a rabbinical school, AJR offers pluralistic rabbinic and cantorial training, with graduates serving both movement-affiliated and non-affiliated congregations around the world. Faculty and students are cross-denominational, and rabbis and cantors are trained as equal partners in spiritual leadership. (


Hava Nashira (HN)

Hava Nashira is a Jewish Songleaders’ Group, initiated in 1992 by Debbie Friedman (z’’l) and Cantor Jeff Klepper. As described at their website, The Hava Nashira Site: A Jewish Songleaders Resource: “Every year since 1992, in early June, people with a common interest in song-leading, teaching and leading Jewish music gather on the grounds of Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin for the Hava Nashira Songleading and Music Workshop.” (More info about the annual Hava Nashira Workshop can be found at: “At this unique event, some of the finest Jewish music innovators and composers have shared their music and their skills. Participants of all ages, backgrounds, and religious practice come to improve their own skills, network with others and share ideas in a supportive, nurturing atmosphere.” (


Women Cantors’ Network (WCN)

Organized in 1982 by Cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray, WCN is an “open resource to any working, aspiring, or retired woman cantor who enjoys sharing, learning, singing and praying as a unique community.” WCN membership includes over 300 women and men from the U.S., Canada, Israel, the UK, France and Germany. ( The WCN members are from all denominations.



Within an hour of my initial post to the three list-serves, I received emails from people who were attempting to complete the survey. One of the most serious flaws in this survey is Questions #15-17 and perhaps others. Even though I work in 2 congregations, I failed to create a survey that I could take about the two congregations, and found that many others, especially in the HN list-serve, work in more than one congregation. Although there are ways around this problem for those taking the survey, for example, the person could chose one congregation to focus on, the survey would have been more meaningful and easier to complete if it provided participants a method to respond about all their congregations.


This raised a new question for me, to find out the number of people who work in more than one congregation, and whether this is more prevalent for song-leaders as compared with ordained cantors.


Also, another potential flaw of my survey is the population to which it was administered. Bias cannot be totally avoided in a survey. The bias of my results is clear to me, since I administered this survey to a predominantly pluralistic, Reform and Conservative population, leaning more toward Reform (HN representing at least a third of the responses). If I had an option to administer this survey to include several more groups, at the very least I’d like to include the cantorial unions affiliated with JTA and URJ.


Finally, I received an email with “advice,” regarding the survey, which I think is valid to explore as well. Sue Horowitz, a songwriter from Maine (, suggested, “since you are asking lay leaders as well as clergy to complete this form, I might go through it and define words such as "nusach" and anything else that presumes knowledge. I would not assume that everyone knows what you mean when you use Hebrew words or phrases.” (Email received December 23, 2011) This issue, of what is meant by “nusach,” is addressed further in another section of this paper.



– An in-depth look at several survey questions and responses



Several questions provided thought-provoking responses. To begin with, the majority of the respondents were from either Conservative or Reform congregations. Specifically (#15), 57.8% belong to Reform congregations, and 19.5%, Conservative. However, when they were growing up, the numbers were markedly closer, with 43.8% in Reform and 39.8% in Conservative congregations (#16). To make this even more notable, 56.3% do not consider themselves in the same denomination as when they were growing up (#17). Whether this is (even partially) a result of the “appeal” of the contemporary music used in Reform congregations is yet to be determined by future surveys.








A key question I had for this survey was regarding the use of musical instruments. A whopping 88.1% of the respondents who answered this question (104 of the 118 respondents) said that they use musical instruments. (Question #25) While 11% said that musical instruments were used for “none” of their holidays (Question #27), 82.2%, or 97 respondents, said they use musical instruments on Shabbat, and 70% or more use instruments on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Simchat Torah, and Chanukah. To correlate this with denomination (Question #15), we had 57.8%, or 74 of the 128 respondents to that question describe their congregation as Reform. If we add in (from question #15) the other denominations not including Conservative, Chabad, and Orthodox, we’ll have 44 participants, which more than equals the 82.2% who use instruments. Although I haven’t directly checked these answers, this confirms my initial expectation about the use of musical instruments based on denomination. Today, most Conservative congregations prohibit the use of instruments on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.





Finally, it’s not surprising to see which instruments are the most popularly used today. Guitar (84.7%) piano (76.3%), and drums  (55.9%) are in the clear lead, with many others included. The category “none” used represents only 10.2% or 12 respondents, which roughly matches the 14 who said “no” on question #25.




Another key question I had for this survey was regarding the use of nusach. I only asked one question, #28, about nusach. There might be a flaw in this question (see flaws, above), and fourteen people wrote comments about the question, including, “This is not a clear question. Our cantor always uses SOME nusach during every service but there is rarely a service that is ALL nusach“ and “Nusah is not defined here - I am assuming you mean, traditional melodies” and “Purim - always use megillah trope.” These few responses indicate that the question of nusach is complicated and needs to be addressed in a larger series of questions.


Given these issues with the potential question flaws, the overall response is not surprising. The most predominant use of nusach is found on the High HolyDays, with 76 respondents (Rosh Hashanah) and 78 (Yom Kippur) always using nusach (total of 118 respondents to this question), and 36 sometimes using nusach for both holidays. For Shabbat, we had 55 respondents who said they always use nusach on Shabbat, and 46-49 who sometimes do so.




Nusach and participation are closely tied, because although many people only have a vague idea (at best) about what nusach is, some congregants and leaders feel that nusach is a deterrent to participation, while others embrace it and seek to maintain and pass down nusach as an important part of our Jewish heritage. From the survey, it’s not clear how much the inclusion of nusach impacts participation or how important nusach is to the participants in the survey. 




With regard to participation, according to the survey only 20.3% said that congregants participate during 100% of the songs, and 51.7% said that congregants participate in 75% of the songs. (Question #31); however, 42.4% of respondents said that for 100% of the songs/prayers, the songleader/cantor offers opportunities to sing, and 41.5% said the songleader/cantor offers opportunities to sing during 75% of the songs/prayers (Question #32).





As a cantorial student and an educator, it was vital for me to find out about support in the congregations. Thus, I asked questions geared to explore these issues. 78% of the respondents said that their congregations provide learning opportunities for congregants to learn the music. (Question #29) The most prevalent types of learning opportunities were religious school classes (51.7%), choir or CD (50%), and adult study sessions (48.3%). 





It was disappointing to see that 53.4% of the respondents said that their Ritual Committee doesn’t have stated goals for musical participation. It’s not clear why this was the response, yet 33.1% said they weren’t sure, and 10 people chose “other” and wrote in some comments. However, in the written answers to #34,  (“describe the Ritual Committee’s goals”), 46 people wrote N/A, and a number of people said they don’t have a Ritual committee. If a congregation has a Ritual Committee, hopefully it is being used in part as a support system for the leadership and the congregation.



To compliment the survey data, I found some information from various sources. In her impressive Discovering Jewish Music, Dr. Marsha Bryant Edelman describes that until the mid-1960s, many Jewish Americans were “slow to embrace modern Zionism,” or show their Jewish identity in any prominent way, due to various issues including “pockets of anti-Semitism,” “limiting quotas” in admissions to prestigious universities, routine exclusion from country clubs, and more. (p. 249) However, after the Six-Day War (1967), there was a “profound emotional catharsis for American Jewry.” (p. 250) As a result, in all denominations, Jewish ritual leaders, cantors, and camp song-leaders sought new ways to engage their listeners; composers and musicians emerged such as Baruch Chait and Shlomo Carlebach (Orthodox), Debbie Friedman, Steve Reuben, Safam, Craig Taubman (Conservative and Reform), and many others. Israeli song began to be included, such as “Oseh Shalom” by Nurit Hirsh.


From the Reform perspective, today’s music is a “new American Jewish nusach, that helped people connect to Judaism,” both as teens in summer camp and as adults. (“The Music of Reform Youth,” Thesis for Master of Sacred Music, Cantor Wally Schachet-Briskin, HUC-JIR School of Sacred Music, 1996) Schachet-Briskin’s idea is that the informal music (written by Jeffrey Klepper, Debbie Friedman, and other folk songwriters from the UAHC or NFTY movement) is akin to nusach for today’s American Jews. This idea is not a wide-spread feeling among ordained cantors and cantorial schools, and the formula for traditional nusach melodies, which are composed according to specific musical modes, continues to be a cherished element of cantorial studies.



Through my survey and research, I feel as though I’ve begun to scratch the surface of several important topics related to today’s Jewish liturgical music. The topics of nusach, use of musical instruments, congregational and committee support, and participation, are vitally important to me in my roles of educator and cantor. While many congregants seek a community experience in musical expression during worship, leaders need to provide learning opportunities in order to facilitate congregational participation. If we seek to retain nusach as part of our Jewish heritage, congregants need to learn about it in order for them to participate during services and also, so that they’re able to make informed decisions if they are Ritual Committee members.


Overall, there are some clear trends in today’s Jewish liturgical music, and over time, the trends are likely to change as needs and times change. Technology is a dramatically relevant topic, which I didn’t address in this survey and paper. Because of the major changes in technology today, spiritual leaders in the US are including contemporary Israeli music in their worship; they are sharing their music with Jews around the world, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter keep us in touch with people around the world. Prayerbooks are now digitized (for example, you can download Friday night service from Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur, to your tablet device), and some congregations use technology such as Powerpoint presentations, instead of songsheets, when leading music during worship.


We also need to take into account the several varying attitudes that congregations display with regard to music. The attitudes of congregants may at times vary significantly. Expectations and needs of congregants can influence the way music is used in a congregation. By asking key questions of congregants, possibly similar to those asked in my survey, a leader (cantor or rabbi, lay leader or song leader) can make informed decisions to enhance and elevate the prayer experience. One of the rabbis I work with has expressed to me that he makes decisions based on his understanding of what the congregation needs, which may not always be what they ask for. Achieving a balance by focusing on the needs of the congregation is very important for their spiritual growth. 


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