Meet the Chazzanim

Name: Chazzan Yissaschar Helman

Shul: IGB (Israelitische Gemeinde Basel), Basel, Switzerland

Years as chazzan: 31

Name: Mr. Richard Hagler

Shul: The White Shul, Far Rockaway, New York

Years as chazzan: over 30

Name: Rabbi G.

Shul: Chernobyl Beis Medrash, Bnei Brak, Israel

Years as chazzan: 35

Name: Chazzan Chaim David Berson

Shul: The Jewish Center, Upper West Side, New York

Years as chazzan: 11

“You Need to Have Hartz”

The first criterion for any chazzan or baal tefillah is regesh, feeling, explains Chazzan Yissachar Helman, long-time chazzan in Basel, Switzerland. “You need to connect to the tefillah, to understand the words, so that it can come straight from the heart out.”

“You need to have ‘hartz,’ ” agrees Rabbi G., baal tefillah at the Chernobyl Beis Medrash in Bnei Brak. “A nice voice is the least that you need; the main thing is to put your heart into your davening.”

The famous chazzan Yossele Rosenblatt, explains Rabbi G., surpassed all other chazzanim not just because of his beautiful voice — there were other chazzanim in his days who had perhaps nicer voices — but because of his regesh, the warmth and emotion he infused into his tefillos, and people felt that and wanted that.

Chazzan or Baal Tefillah?

What is the difference between a chazzan and a baal tefillah? “The terms chazzan and baal tefillah are really interchangeable,” explains Rabbi G. “In the machzor, where it says ‘chazzan,’ it means the baal tefillah, the person who leads the tzibbur in the davening.”

Today, we often use the term chazzan to mean a person with a trained voice, or one who often sings professionally before an audience in addition to being the baal tefillah in a shul. Chazzan Helman and Chazzan Chaim David Berson both trained in professional schools for chazzanim before accepting positions in their shuls.

But the real difference? Chazzan Helman sums it up in one sentence: “The difference between a chazzan and baal tefillah is that you can be a baal tefillah without being a chazzan, but you can’t be a chazzan without being a baal tefillah.”

Opening Notes

“I grew up with it”

“I’m not a chazzan, I am a baal tefillah,” explains Mr. Richard Hagler of Far Rockaway, New York. Mr. Hagler’s father was a baal tefillah for many years, and both his grandfathers were baalei tefillah as well. “It’s in the genes, we grew up with it,” Mr. Hagler proclaims.

Mr. Hagler’s training comes mostly from listening to his father, uncles, and grandfathers lead the tefillos. “We always used to daven along with the chazzan,” he says. As a young man in his twenties, he was asked to daven for various small shuls that needed baalei tefillah, and it took off from there. In 1991, he was invited to daven the Yamim Noraim tefillos for the second minyan of the White Shul, where he was a member. He’s been there ever since — though over time, the second minyan has evolved into the main one! (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 679)