Barry Reich realized he’d been a cantor a long time when he began noticing some of his former bar mitzvah students now sporting gray hair and grizzled beards.
Though not yet 70, Reich is in year 50 as cantor at Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom. His half-century on the job at one institution makes him the Vin Scully of cantors. Like the venerated baseball broadcaster, who has been calling L.A. Dodgers games for nearly 70 years, Reich, too, is much loved by his admirers.
“I wouldn’t say it went by in an instant,” Reich said, “but it’s kind of an amazing thing. It was something that gave me an unexpected path, an unexpected life to lead.”
Reich will be one of the honorees at an evening gala on Saturday, May 14, at the temple, which boasts a 700-family membership roll. Not only will congregants celebrate Reich’s 50 years, they also will mark Rabbi Dan Feder’s 10 years at PTS as well as the 60th anniversary of the synagogue’s founding.
“He is incredibly energetic, dedicated and strong,” Feder said of his colleague. “He loves synagogue life, he loves Jewish life and he loves teaching. I think he really feels it’s an honor and privilege to be part of peoples’ lives.”
Feder feels the same about his own tenure, which began a decade ago when longtime PTS Rabbi Gerald Raiskin stepped down, only to pass away suddenly not long after. It was a shock to the congregation, which had bonded closely with the social justice pioneer.
“Rabbi Raiskin was here from 1956 to 2006,” Feder said, “and it’s been really wonderful working with Cantor Barry since then. We worked closely with the clergy and lay leadership to foster the congregation’s s growth in the next era.”
Reich knew Raiskin well, having been 18 when the rabbi hired the motorcycle-riding fourth-generation cantor in 1967. Reich had grown up chanting Orthodox liturgy and knew little about Reform Judaism. But after his audition, Reich’s father, who hailed from the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Raiskin, urged his son to take the job.
“He said, ‘I don’t know anything about Reform, but it would sure be wonderful if you could spend time with that rabbi,’ ” Reich remembered his father telling him. “That was the beginning. Rabbi Raiskin turned out to be like another dad to me.”
Karen Wisialowski, chief community officer and a member for 20 years, says Reich’s success as a b’nai mitzvah teacher is about the quality of the relationships he forms.
“He meets each kid where they are,” she said. “He understands some are super excited to have a bar mitzvah and some are not. He helps them find a comfort zone, so he’s extremely easy to be with, loveable, and connects really well.”
Reich acknowledges that in some ways he still has the mind of a 13-year-old, which helps him relate to his students. “Little by little I discovered that the job is not about a lot of singing,” he said. “It’s more working with kids and families.”
Reich maintains a zest for learning. In 2007, he received ordination as a rabbi from the Israel Institute of Religious Studies, and he is currently wrapping up a two-year course in pastoral counseling that blends cognitive behavioral therapy with Torah.
That training ties in with the congregation’s community organizing initiative, Kolot (Voices), which includes a focus on mental wellness in and around the community.
“I feel strongly this is an area in which we can have a deep impact in the Peninsula,” Feder said. “Mental wellness is a huge societal issue, one that really impacts every community, including PTS.”
Oriented to the future as Feder and Reich may be, for the cantor the past keeps bumping into him, sometimes literally.
“I run into so many people who were my bar and bat mitzvah students,” Reich said. “One came up to me and said, ‘Are your jokes still just as corny?’”