An Open Letter to my Progressive, Jewish, Male Colleagues

By Cantor Cheryl Wunch

It’s time for us to publicly address an issue that we’ve only thus far discussed in private. It’s an issue that a number of you have, in private, told me that I’m wrong for caring about. It’s an issue that some of you (thank goodness) have, in private, told me that I’m right for caring about. Let’s take this from the private to the public sphere and talk about all-male cantorial concerts. You might not think that this is an issue that needs discussing, but please – just hear me out.

There is a loud cry in business and academic circles right now insisting on the end of “manels” (all male panels). Women (and men!) in almost every industry are calling for equal gender representation in seminars, conferences, and educational presentations. Concerts should be no different. Every time you agree to speak on an all-male panel, or sing in an all-male concert, you are striking a blow against Progressive Judaism, and condoning the silencing of women.

Although I am personally not interested in concert singing (the only public singing I like to do is in worship or education), I don’t want to keep silent or stand by as female cantors are silenced. All-male cantorial concerts, by definition, exclude over 600 women who have been ordained by accredited seminaries. They also fail to represent over half of the Jewish population, and we know that representation matters. My goal here is to stand up to colleagues and institutions that support and further the female erasure and male supremacy in our profession. I want to ensure that the progressive, egalitarian values we all share are upheld in their entirety.

While our progressive movements have done an exemplary job in promoting egalitarianism, one thing that can not be “fixed” is the perception by some that female cantors are OTHER. We are mainstream – witness our credentials and our numbers. Male cantors, by nature of being male, have a certain privilege in the Jewish world that we who identify as female, or transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming simply do not have. Male cantors are able to glide between the movements with some ease and relative acceptance in a way that we simply cannot. Of course, plenty of our colleagues don’t fall under the cis-gender, heterosexual, white male umbrella … but even still, as male-presenting people you have access to areas of Judaism that we do not.

I passionately believe that you chose to serve a progressive stream of Judaism because YOU passionately believe in progressive values. You don’t believe that women’s voices lead men to sin. You don’t believe that men are better than women. You don’t believe that there should be opportunities afforded to men that aren’t afforded to women… and yet, when it comes to concerts those ideals seem to disappear. Don’t be fooled – your participation in all-male concerts is not ambassadorship nor is it you “stepping up” to represent progressive Judaism. You are being used to give progressive credibility to these events. When you participate, concert organizers can pat themselves on the back and prove to their sponsors that they ‘cater to everyone.’ They do not.

I understand that turning down these performances may mean missing out on a financial stipend, or even the chance to have some musical fun and flex your performance muscles. I ask you to remember though, that this extra money and extra fun is not available to all of us. The most recent salary survey showed a significant gender wage-gap in our profession, and those statistics don’t even take into account these extra opportunities. If we are working towards equity and equality, then you simply can’t continue to accept opportunities that aren’t available to all of us. By participating, you are promoting, profiting from, and giving approval to an organization or event that at best erases us, and at worst demonizes us.

I understand that saying no to these opportunities is scary and risky. You might anger some of your peers. You will likely lose stipends and be less visible in the community. I get it. I have been attacked for speaking out, and those opportunities have never been available to me. Equality feels like oppression when you’ve always had privilege. Standing up and being the man who refuses to participate in programs that erase women may feel lonely and unfair but fighting for equality often feels lonely and unfair at the start. I’m asking you to stand up and be the leader who refuses to join in the erasure of women, and who boldly and loudly upholds our progressive and egalitarian values.

Of course, there are great all-male groups who shouldn’t be silenced – just like there are children’s choirs and women’s choirs and choirs with all sorts of unique identities. I’m not asking that you stop making this kind of music. What I’m asking you to do is use the platform that you have to raise up female voices as well. Take the skills and expertise that you’ve learned in your years of hard work and train some talented women – or help to fund the debut album of women who can’t seem to get a foothold in this male-dominated business. Refuse to participate in programs that don’t include women and give of your time and resources to help women succeed. Remove your tacit (and not-so-tacit) support of organizations that won’t let us in the door. Feminism is not about stepping away and forcing women to do everything all on their own, it’s about stepping back and giving a boost to the women who need it. Telling women to plan their own concert to counter the ones that are men-only is asking the oppressed to do even more work for their own equality, rather than using your positions of power and privilege to help create change. Refusing to participate in performances that don’t include women isn’t the same as not performing with your buddies. Please use your God-given voice to fight against misogyny.

I know that not all of my female colleagues agree with me. That’s ok. We don’t all have to agree, but we all have to choose what matters to us. And so I say to you, my male colleagues who have been happily living in both words – upholding progressive values with one hand while benefitting from the misogyny of tradition with the other – it’s time to make a choice. Progressive values and the exclusion of women are contradictory. Equality is a constant, daily struggle, and those of us whose voices are hidden behind the proverbial mechitza cannot do it without you.

Cantor Cheryl Wunch is an independent Cantor based in Toronto. She was ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2011 and is a member of the Ethics Committee and serves as the Chair of the Women in the Cantorate Taskforce for the American Conference of Cantors. She can be contacted through her website