One place Barry Reich didn’t expect to end up parking himself for a half-century was at a Reform synagogue.
“I thought I was going to be a music teacher,” he admitted.
But Reich, the scion of a long line of cantors, and a former Orthodox yeshiva student, has just retired after 51 years at Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom, where he combined his love of the powerful music of Jewish tradition with a true openness and joy of spirit.
“He deeply loves the Jewish people, he deeply loves serving the Jewish people, it’s in his soul,” PTS’ Rabbi Dan Feder said. “It is so much more than his role, his profession; it is an expression of his self.”
Reich, 71, has the kind of background most cantors could only dream of. He represents the fifth generation of cantors in his family, raised in L.A.’s old Jewish neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Reich was a yeshiva kid until his father, Israel Reich, switched to the Conservative movement. The family moved around for a few years, and Barry Reich got his cantorial start as a child singing in overflow services at his father’s synagogue in Miami.
But by senior year in high school, the Reiches were in San Francisco, where Israel served as cantor at Congregation Beth Sholom. Barry was still a music student of 17 when he stepped in as a temporary cantor at PTS, where he was astounded to find out what a Reform service was like.
“It was a mindblower to have instruments!” he said.
But Reich, who is also a jazz guitarist and an erstwhile motorcycle rider, enjoyed the freedom of the synagogue and of the city.
“Can you imagine landing here in 1967?” he said. “The music scene was pretty amazing.”
And so he spent the next 50 years at Peninsula Temple Sholom, working until 2006 with the founding rabbi, the late Gerald Raiskin, and then with Feder.
“He warmly welcomed me and was always very gracious and understanding,” Feder said. “That made my role much easier.”
Reich’s brother and sister are also cantors — Brian Reich, at Temple Israel Alameda, and Linda Rich in Southern California — and the family even made a joint album once, something Reich calls a “long project.”
“I told them I was going to call it four cantors, five opinions,” he said.
Reich also tutored generations of b’nai mitzvah students at PTS, putting down solid roots in the Bay Area, where he raised his two daughters.
“I made a promise to myself, should I be blessed with children — thank God I was — I would never ever make them move,” he said.
Through his years at the synagogue, he’s touched people’s lives in their brightest and darkest moments, according to Kathleen Shugar, co-chair of the committee overseeing the change of cantors.
“He’s so much a part of all of our families,” she said.
That’s why the synagogue is celebrating the end of Reich’s tenure with not one, not two, but three celebrations. The first, held on May 5, paid tribute to the cantor’s love of jazz.
The second, on June 1, is a community Shabbat service open to all. And on June 3, a celebration concert will feature cantors and musicians performing music from Broadway to Jewish favorites. Shugar has been reaching out to Reich’s former b’nai mitzvah, chorus and band students, who by now number over 1,000, asking them to show up.
“So that he is surrounded by just generations of love,” Shugar said.
The events also will be a way people can donate to the Cantor Barry Reich Tribute Fund, which will support an annual concert series, training for young song leaders, and the homeless services volunteering project at Peninsula Temple Sholom, something Reich cares deeply about.
With retirement on the horizon, Reich has a few ideas for how he’ll be spending his time, although he’s keeping his options open. He plans to publish some of the choral music he’s written through the years, which means recording it as well, and he’s toying with the notion of working with Jewish summer camps. And his official title will be cantor emeritus as of July 1.
But one thing he won’t be doing in the fall is singing on the bimah.
“For the first time in 51 years, I’m going to take the High Holidays off,” he said.