Our History

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Our History

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"The American Conference of Certified Cantors aims to guarantee the realization of the dream of the cantorate for tomorrow by self-discipline today.” 
[from Mission statement, ca. 1953]

The organization first known as the American Conference of Certified Cantors (ACCC) owes its existence to graduates of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In October 1952, the HUC-JIR Bulletin published a brief article under the heading “[William] Sharlin Heads Cantor Alumni,” which by then numbered two dozen graduates. Among the founding officers of the ACCC were many of the men who, a few months later, would convene in South Fallsburg, New York, to discuss the need for “an organization which will have the authority and power to represent the American cantorate.” Cantor Sharlin, along with other newly-minted cantors like Joseph Portnoy, George Weinflash, Sheldon Merel, Harold Orbach and Alex Zimmer, also recognized the need to incorporate their older, established colleagues as “charter” members. They devised a certification process and a corresponding board to achieve this end, bestowing the title “Certified Cantor” upon all those who would successfully complete the prescribed procedure.

The ACCC was founded as “the official organization of all cantors, who have met the requirements and standards of the Board of Cantorial Certification.” It was also devoted to “the proper organization and control of cantorial placement, the creation and distribution of better cantorial and choral materials for the synagogue, plans for establishing retirement and pension funds and other benefits, and any and all other matters which serve the interest of the cantorate.” According to the annual convention proceedings, these priorities remained at the core of the ACCC’s mission well into the 1960s.

By 1969, the ACCC had lost the “C” for “Certified” and formally affiliated itself with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Instead of a Board of Cantorial Certification, there was now a Joint Placement Commission. In a letter dated June 3, 1969, announcing the new relationship with the UAHC, Alex Zimmer and Raymond Smolover declared, “The American Conference of Cantors is dedicated to a creative Judaism preserving the best of the past and encouraging new and vital approaches to religious ritual, music, and ceremonies.” In 1970, the ACC demonstrated its commitment to this mission with a groundbreaking convention in Curaçao that was underwritten by Eastern Air Lines, and covered by Newsweek magazine. Several new musical works were premiered at this gathering. Convention chairman Paul Kwartin noted that this gathering was the first to include “composers, music directors, organists and ritual committee members whose….contributions are vital to the cantorate on behalf of a more meaningful, artistic and musical liturgy.” In addition, the ACC became actively engaged in working on behalf of its membership as professionals. It was at this time that the vision of Cantor Norman Summers led to the establishment of a pension plan for the Conference membership in order to create a means for members to be financially secure upon retirement.

The ACC’s increased public profile during the next few years culminated in an historic gala cantorial concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in April 1971. The concert was sponsored by the Miller Brewing Company and Philip Morris Incorporated, whose chairmen noted they were “particularly proud to present this cantorial concert as a salute to the contemporary renaissance of Jewish liturgical music.” For the next decade, the ACC remained committed to helping foster this cultural renaissance, in addition to supporting its members’ professional needs. The progressive environment of the cantorate led to the Investiture in 1975 of Cantor Barbara Ostfeld as the first woman to be professionally educated to serve as a cantor. In addition to those educated at HUC-JIR’s School of Sacred Music, avenues were provided to certify individuals with pre-approved training and credentials, initiatives which would continue to strengthen ACC membership.

In the 1980s the ACC solidified its position as a professional organization providing job placement and networking services for cantors worldwide. The organization hired cantorial professionals in part-time leadership capacities titled Executive Vice-President and Director of Placement. Cantors William Sharlin (z”l), Raymond Smolover, Howard Stahl and Richard Botton played essential leadership roles in the ongoing development and growth of the Conference. Their vision and commitment to advocacy succeeded in elevating the cantor in synagogue life, thereby increasing the number of congregations engaging ACC cantors. During this time, with Howard Stahl chairing the first National Commission on Cantorial-Congregational Relationships, the leadership of the ACC worked closely with the lay leadership of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to help establish a cantorial-congregational relationship document. This important instrument clarified expectations for cantors serving in congregations, and provided pertinent information relating to sabbaticals and other benefits.

The leaders of the ACC worked tirelessly to build bridges with the rabbinate and with other Jewish professional organizations. Throughout the 1980s, as many Jews who had been distanced from organized Judaism began returning to the synagogue, congregational membership grew, and more lifecycle and communal events were celebrated. Cantors were increasingly called upon to serve in expanded capacities, officiating at weddings and funerals, counseling congregants and teaching adult education classes. In 1983, the School of Sacred Music had expanded its cantorial studies curriculum, earning the right to award a Master’s degree level program. The ACC promoted the concept of the cantor as a co-clergy professional, asserting that investiture was comparable to ordination both in terms of training and array of responsibilities. In 1987 the ACC established its own affiliate organization, the Guild of Temple Musicians, which represented accompanists, conductors, composers, music directors and soloists. The ACC and GTM amplified collaborative efforts around the planning and programming of jointly-held annual conventions, actively supporting stronger relationships between cantors and synagogue musicians in the field.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, the impact of women in the cantorate, greatly influenced the character of the profession and of Jewish American life in general. Cantors Vicki Axe and Judith Rowland were the first women presidents of the ACC, raising the female voice in leadership to a new level of significance. In the first half of the 1990’s, the cantorate prospered. The ACC, in cooperation with the School of Sacred Music, developed a formal certification process for individuals already working in the field, contributing to the growth of the organization and its impact on congregations. As ACC membership increased exponentially through investiture and certification, and as the complexity of the relationships between the ACC and other Reform institutions intensified, the need for a greater commitment to advocacy and member support became clear. The Conference was eventually able to engage Cantor Scott Colbert as its first full-time Executive Vice-President. In the first decade of the 2000s, a leadership team headed by ACC President Richard Cohn engaged the membership in a dynamic reorganization, intended to revitalize our vision, expand our advocacy, secure our infrastructure, and respond to the unprecedented reinterpretation of Reform Jewish music, worship and culture that had emerged. This transformational effort led to a new Mission Statement and Guiding Principles. Both the volunteer leadership model and the professional staffing structure of the ACC were reconstituted, with support from organizational consultant Dee Danner. The Pension and Insurance Program, a cornerstone of the Conference, was strengthened under the guidance of Cantor David Goldstein.

In a Jewish world that was beginning to bear little resemblance to the period of its founding in the 1950s, the ACC endeavored to honor the dedication of decades of ACC leaders while also responding to new circumstances. Volunteer and professional leaders now work as a highly integrated team to effectuate the interests of the Conference, with the current array of professional staff positions (Rachel Roth, Managing Director; Cantor Kay Greenwald, Placement Director; Cantor Gail Hirschenfang, Director of Member Support ; Cantor Jodi Schechtman, Director of Organizational Partnerships) supporting our outstanding volunteer leaders and broader membership. During the presidency of Cantor Susan Caro, the ACC has remained committed to preserving the professional support of cantors as a top priority while ensuring that our values continue to be relevant to the Reform movement. The cantorate remains not only responsive to, but leads the reinterpretation of Jewish music that continues to unfold through prayer and learning in our communities. Building on the strong foundation of our founders, and strengthened by each successive generation of ACC leadership, we are a strong and vibrant organization of Jewish professional clergy. ACC advocacy was instrumental in bringing about the transition from Investiture to Ordination of cantors, beginning with the HUC-JIR class of 2012, further clarifying public understanding of the role of cantor as clergy and reinforcing a partnership with the rabbinate. This historic accomplishment firmly establishes the value and importance in the Reform movement of the cantor as spiritual leader and clergy partner. We have taken stands on important political issues, such as Uniting American Families Act, and Women of the Wall.. We support the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, producing “Singing for S’mores” concerts to benefit children who go to URJ camps. We have developed a strong future through our fundraising efforts, including Shirim L’Olam, a planned giving program to secure the long-term future of our endowment. As a model professional organization, we are committed to the well-being of cantors in their work, as well as to ensuring that cantors have a profound impact on the Reform Jewish world. May we go from strength to strength, so that the future of a transformational cantorate will always honor the inspiring legacy of its past.