Voluntter of the Month: David Frommer

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Voluntter of the Month: David Frommer

Cantor David Frommer is a 2011 graduate of HUC-JIR DFSSM.  He serves as cantor at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, California.

In what capacity have you volunteered for the ACC?

Two main lines of effort: As a regular member of the Strategic Planning and Visioning Committee and as a current co-chair for the 2016 ACC/GTM convention in Philadelphia.

How did you come to volunteer?  Did you step up where you saw a need or did someone ask you?

It’s kind of a funny story. I was having lunch with Kay Greenwald and mentioned I would love to get involved in the ACC in anything other than finances and technology (because I know nothing about those).  The next thing I knew, Steve Weiss called me up and invited me to serve on the Strategic Planning and Visioning Committee and I agreed. I immediately called Kay and started profusely thanking her for passing along my name to Steve. I was babbling on and on until, at the first moment she could get a word in, she informed me of the minor detail that she had never mentioned our conversation to Steve! At which point there was this awkward pause where I was like, “Oh. Well, um, thank you… anyway?” Of course, she was gracious about the misunderstanding.

The committee’s work is mostly over now, but I had a great two years serving on it. And, it actually led to my being asked to serve as a convention co-chair, because Erin Frankel also served on that committee and we first met through that connection. She was asked to co-chair the convention first and after she agreed, she requested me as her co-chair, and I was thrilled to accept.

In your experience, what’s the best part of being a Cantor?

Building my congregants’ Jewish social capital through musical knowledge is what most excites me about being a cantor.

I was asked once how the music is chosen for services at my congregation, and to what extent it was based on tradition. I answered by saying that in most Reform synagogues there has been a move away from an over-arching philosophy of traditional nusach guidelines to an over-arching philosophy of functionality. I think most Reform cantors construct their services by determining what function each prayer or melody is serving and then assessing if all of those melodies add up to something coherent as a whole.  Is a particular melody something traditional that your congregants already know, or is it a traditional melody that they don’t know but you want to teach them, or is it a contemporary melody in either of those categories? Is it a melody that your rabbi just happens to love or is it a melody meant to set up a mood or reflect a particular holiday?  So I think the method we use now is guided by functionality and I love being able to ensure that every melody a congregant hears has a particular meaning or function—whether it’s connecting them with history, or with other Reform congregations, or with other Jewish communities outside the Reform Movement, etc. It’s not the over-arching philosophy that guided cantors’ musical choices a hundred years ago, but it’s a beautiful response to where we are as a Movement today.

What is the biggest challenge facing the cantorate today and into the future?

If you look at a typical Reform congregation and a typical Modern Orthodox congregation, the former is much more likely to employ a cantor than the latter. On the other hand, the laity’s general literacy of the liturgy is much higher among Modern Orthodox Jews than it is among Reform Jews. (I’m not saying that we don’t have talented individual Reform lay leaders but they’re more anomalous in our synagogues, I believe, than in Modern Orthodox ones.) In summary: we see a high competency in the laity but a low priority to hire a cantor in Modern Orthodox congregations versus a high priority to hire a cantor but low competency in the laity in Reform congregations.

My concern is that the vital need for our profession in the Reform movement is actually built on a foundation of low competency among our laity. We’re essential to our synagogues, precisely because very few congregants can do what we do. One of the common reasons my Modern Orthodox friends tell me they don’t employ full-time cantors at their shuls is that they have plenty of people who can lead davening for Shabbat, so they really only need cantors on major holidays. I would sell my soul to be able to say I had ten lay leaders in my Reform synagogue who had the Hebrew and liturgical literacy to lead a Shabbat service, but then I wonder, would that make me similarly expendable? I want the Jewish world to be able to celebrate both lay competency and the gifts that a Cantor brings to a synagogue, rather than choosing one over the other.  I’m afraid we don’t have a model for that right now.

What influenced you to become a Cantor?

I grew up at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City in the eighties and nineties and at the time, BJ was using a revolutionary approach to create a unique Shabbat musical experience.  They were ahead of the curve in terms of participatory singing.  They chose music by Ashkenazi composers from Lewandowski to Goldfarb, or from melodic Sephardic traditions, that were simple and beautiful, and they completely eliminated English readings that would have interrupted the singing.  They were also ahead of the curve in terms of teaching the music to the laity. They made cassette tapes and distributed them to the congregation so that people could listen to the music at home or in their cars.  For whatever reason these melodies resonated with me and I listened to those cassette tapes like most kids would listen to tapes of pop or rock music. And the more I listened, the more of the service I was able to sing when we went to synagogue. It was a positive feedback loop. So the first thing that influenced my love of Jewish music was learning BJ’s melodies with my parents when we listened to them in the car, and then singing them together as a family when we went to services. 

The second thing that influenced me was singing for four years in Yale’s Jewish a cappella group, Magevet. The exciting part of it was that we toured all over the country and internationally performing at synagogues, schools, and community centers and at every concert I’d observe this intense, emotional reaction to our music. The parents and grandparents in the audience came up to us afterwards as if we were rock stars. Until then, Jewish music had been a part of my home and my synagogue but it hadn’t connected me with other Jewish people in far-flung places like Glasgow, Scotland, or Jackson, Mississippi.  It opened my eyes not only to the power of Jewish music but also to the non-musical factors that influence how people respond to it. Many people in the audience, I realized, were reacting less to the music itself (much of which they’d never heard before), and more to the reassuring sight of young Jewish adults who were excited to be participating in a Jewish enterprise at all. By the end of college I had decided to dedicate my life to sharing Jewish music and studying people’s relationship with it and a couple years after graduation, I applied to HUC.

Tell us one thing about yourself that we might not know, but you’d like to share.

I’m a huge enthusiast of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  At six years old I teamed up with my younger sister and we staged our own full-length production of The Mikado using stuffed animals as the cast. We prepared for months and our parents invited their friends over for opening night.  It was two and a half hours… and that was just for act one!  At intermission, our parents’ friends excused themselves for the evening and promised they’d come back the next night for act two, but of course they never did.  They called in sick. Our parents had to sit through act two the next night on their own. The show closed after that. It had a short run, but it sparked a lifelong enjoyment. I know it sounds absurd to say, but G&S reminds me of Torah in certain ways—it seems very formal and dated at first but the more you study it, the more you appreciate its wisdom and beauty and humor.