Peninsula Temple Sholom’s Reich celebrates 40 years of singing his song

The rumblings of a well-worn motorcycle were at first barely detectable, but soon grew to a deafening roar as the leather jacketed-rider blasted into the parking lot of Peninsula Temple Sholom, his long, flowing hair whipping in the wind.

The rider’s black boots hit the ground and he nonchalantly slipped a guitar case off his shoulder as he strode toward the synagogue’s front door. And yet, no one was worried about the Hell’s Angels doppelganger. After all, it was just Cantor Barry.

Forty years later, the motorcycle is gone, the leather jacket is gone and, alas, most of the hair is gone, too. But Cantor Barry Reich is still going strong at Peninsula Temple Sholom.

“There was no time without Cantor Barry,” said 43-year-old Dr. Lauren Gerson, a lifelong member at Peninsula Temple Sholom. Reich bat mitzvahed her and just recently bar mitzvahed her son, Andrew. And in the Burlingame temple, this is hardly unusual.

Yet, perhaps the most surprising element of Reich’s 40-year celebration — and, last weekend, the synagogue did celebrate him properly — is that he’s only 57 years old. The eldest son of Israel “The Wunderkind” Reich, who became a fourth-generation cantor at age 13, the teenaged Barry Reich had a gig strumming his guitar and singing songs to raise money for Israel Bonds.

By age 17 Barry Reich was already an old hand at show business. He’d been singing in grown men’s choirs since he was four or five years old — “I had a voice. I could sing. But most kids, until adults tell them to shut up and make them inhibited, have beautiful voices. They just never use them.”

One of Reich’s 1967 Israel Bonds shows made a particularly good impression on audience member Gerald Raiskin, Peninsula Temple Sholom’s founding rabbi. He made a call to Israel Reich, and soon enough, Barry Reich was belting out an audition in the Orthodox style to be the Reform synagogue’s High Holy Days cantor.

For a decade, Reich held a plethora of musicians’ jobs while serving as a part-time cantor in Burlingame. Brian Reich, Barry’s youngest brother and himself the longtime cantor at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, vividly recalls his big brother jamming through a weekly Friday gig with his jazz trio at the Hyatt Regency in downtown San Francisco, then tossing his guitar on his back and leaping on his motorcycle to make Kabbalat Shabbat services.

Incidentally, Barry Reich’s marathon tenure isn’t the only notable achievement among the Reich family. Along with Barry and Brian, sister Linda Rich of Los Angeles is also a professional cantor (and her 16-year-old daughter, Rachel Rich-Freed, is a good bet to become a sixth-generation cantor). Also, earlier this year Barry and Brian culminated years of Jewish study undertaken at Florida’s Israel Institute of Religion — initially as a lark — and were ordained as rabbis, just like dear old dad.

Speaking of father figures, Barry Reich has had two: His father, naturally, and Raiskin. Until the rabbi’s death last year, the two shared the bimah for 39 years; between them, they had a combined 89 years of service at PTS. It was a beautiful working relationship and friendship that everyone in the congregation noticed and took pride in.

But it wasn’t a natural fit. Raiskin, in Reich’s words, “was the founder of Type-A Judaism.” For 50 years he kept Peninsula Temple Sholom “on Raiskin time.” Reich, meanwhile, was the sort to run in from the parking lot, whip out his guitar and throw together a number at the last possible minute (or perhaps, more accurately, a little later than that).

“You talk about how many years they served, combined. But I tend to look at the two of them and the vastness of heart that went into that bimah,” said Brian Reich.

Counterintuitively, the older Barry Reich gets, the more creative he becomes. Schooled in an Orthodox tradition, he has grown more eclectic in his musical tastes over the years. And while Raiskin didn’t want Reich — a lifelong Hebrew speaker — to train bar mitzvah students for his first three years on the job (he was only four years older than the students, and young-looking to boot), he has now eased into the role of “Uncle Barry” the Hebrew teacher. Several of the congregation’s past presidents were trained by Reich. After all, there was no time without Cantor Barry.

“This job is not just about singing. I have the opportunity to work with so many different levels of students of so many ages and people possessing every different mindset,” said the cantor.

“It’s never the same. I’ve never had the same day in 40 years. How good is that for a job?”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.