When Melvin Luterman is chanting Hebrew prayers, his voice has the power and passion of a great Italian tenor's.
For 35 years, it has penetrated the hearts of congregants at Temple Oheb Shalom, a Baltimore synagogue rich in tradition that helped lay the foundation of Reform Judaism in the United States.
With his retirement this week, the 65-year-old dean of Baltimore's cantors joins a figurative choir of classically trained singers stepping down from the pulpits of Reform congregations around the country.
Like Luterman, many senior cantors sang without microphones. They trained in both opera and liturgy, celebrating centuries-old compositions and melodies with roots in King Solomon's Temple. Some rarely uttered a sound from the pulpit unless it was a voice raised in song.
But as they move on, Reform synagogues are replacing them with cantors - such as Luterman's successor, Lisa L. Levine, 43 - who are as confident strumming a guitar as they are singing traditional liturgy. They're willing to draw from popular music to appeal to younger worshipers, sometimes with dance and drumming, but almost always with congregational participation.
"It is a fundamental shift," said Jewish music historian Neil W. Levin, who likens the evolution to the Christian movement from liturgical hymns to the populist church music of the Bible Belt.
Where the rabbi is traditionally a teacher and spiritual leader, the cantor, or chazan, is the congregation's voice in prayer. Cantors lead religious services, setting the tone of worship that often distinguishes one synagogue from another, often for decades. Luterman, for instance, is only the fourth cantor in Oheb Shalom's 150-year history.
The change, Jewish scholars say, reflects a complex shift in cultural sensibilities and perhaps nothing less than the Reform Jew's concept of God. The change from aria to folk music mirrors a transition in the cantor's role from ambassador to God, chanting on behalf of the flock, to a leader who helps members pray directly to God.
A century ago, cantors sang liturgy in a "high church" style, said Sarah J. Sager, cantor of Anshe Chesed-Fairmount Temple, a Reform congregation of 1,800 families near Cleveland.
The style represented "a very transcendent theory of God, that said God was somehow removed from us," Sager said. "I think people's concept of God has changed toward a more immanent concept - you know, the small voice within."
It is the old tradition that Luterman embraces. In his farewell announcement to the congregation in September, he recalled joining the temple in 1967 "as your shaliach tzibur, emissary of prayer for you, my congregational family."
Luterman was born in Philadelphia, in 1937, to an observant Jewish family that appreciated music of all kinds and cantorial music in particular. It was the golden age of cantors, said Israel Goldstein, a chazan who is director of the School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
At the time, at least a dozen cantors held folk-hero status in Jewish life, he said. Others succeeded in both worlds, foremost among them Jan Peerce, who made his debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1941 but often officiated at religious services.
"Mel is too young to be one of them, but given that we are not living in that era, he definitely is a star. Vocally, he's one of the finest voices in the cantorate," Goldstein said.
Mornings, the young Luterman forced down a glass of raw egg and chocolate syrup - a concoction his mother promised would build strength and his chops.
"My father, he had a magnificent voice, a tenor. My sister had a beautiful operatic voice. My mother had a `Five-foot-two, eyes-of-blue' kind of voice. Everybody sang," Luterman said.
Studying music at Temple University, Luterman trained on big opera: Puccini's Tosca, Verdi's Otello. But he turned down a chance to sing Wagner professionally in Germany to focus on his cantorial studies, a move he recalls as "a no-brainer."
"I had a constant awareness that to chant is not merely to sing, it is a prayer for God," he said. "It's not a job. It's a feeling."
After assignments at Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, he landed at Oheb Shalom, bastion of Reform Judaism, about the same time the Jewish Youth Movement was reinvigorating a new generation's faith.
Levine was an 8-year-old in California at the time. At Jewish summer camps she learned folk-inspired songs and at home the compositions of Alois Kaiser, the first cantor of the temple where she will assume her duties Tuesday. She was chosen by Oheb Shalom after a nine-month search.
A distant relative of conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, Levine studied music at the University of California-Irvine and the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. She also wrote and performed as half of the Jewish singing duo Lisa and Lynne. Her solo CD, Gems of the High Holy Days, was recorded live on Iowa Public Radio. Her latest project is titled Liturgical Songs for Kids.