Berkeley cantor marks bar mitzvah year at Beth El

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Brian Reich clearly recalls the hushed reception he got the first time he led services at Berkeley's Congregation Beth El almost 14 years ago.

"I'm extremely heavy in congregational participation," explains the cantor. But in 1988 when he was new to the synagogue, congregants were accustomed to the more conventional and passive role of listening to their cantor — not joining him.

"These are our prayers to share," says Reich, who remembers thinking he faced a big task ahead. "This is a duet, this is a partnership: you, me and God."

Reflecting on his career thus far with the 600-family Reform congregation, Cantor Brian, as he is known at Beth El, is pleased by what he sees — and hears. "It's boisterous here. It's loud," he says of the decibel level of services these days.

"It was a good challenge. I knew that I had work to do. Boy, did they learn."

Last Saturday, congregants honored Reich with a celebration of his "bar mitzvah year" (now entering his 14th) at Beth El. The synagogue obviously has become a place that Reich lovingly calls his home.

In keeping with that homey feel, Saturday's festivities included a musical set by Reich and his siblings and fellow cantors, Barry Reich and Linda Reich Freed.

The family comes from a rich cantorial heritage. Father Israel Reich, who died in 1999, was the longtime cantor at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom and had a national reputation as a "cantor's cantor." The family once toured together as the Cantors Four.

"The magic my father produced in his kids is each of us is so different," said Beth El's Reich, the youngest of the trio and the self-described rebel. "He was able to allow us to flourish and become our own cantors even though we were all under his wing. To hear the three of us, we're all so different in our style."

A baritone, Brian Reich has a passion for rock music and the blues that shows up in his cantorial style.

"You can tell I was heavily influenced by the '60s," says Reich, who cites Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young as his favorite group and who makes liberal use of the guitar at Friday night services.

The cantor, who last year recorded a two-CD set called "Kol ha-Shabbat: The Whole Shabbat and Nothing But," says he composed almost half the songs now sung at services. Congregants know some of his pieces so well that they're now considered traditional.

During his tenure at Beth El, Reich estimates he's helped train 600 youngsters for their b'nai mitzvah. He prides himself on being able to instill confidence in even the shiest kid in his or her ability to lead the congregation in prayer.

"The question is not, 'Can I get them to sing on key?' The question is, 'Can I get them up there and feel close to the prayers and close to God?' Can I do that? Yes, 100 percent," he says.

Reich says he tries to create an image for his students. "It is not a performance. It's not a stage. It's a bimah. We're not singing. We're chanting."

Adam Poole, 14, of Berkeley, recalled how Reich helped calm his nerves as his bar mitzvah approached in January 2001. "He kind of explained all of it and made you feel good about it," said Poole.

So much so that Poole has enrolled in an adult class conducted by Reich and helps out periodically at services. "He has like this endless flow of knowledge," Poole says of his mentor.

Congregant Rose Falanga, a 53-year-old librarian from Berkeley, is somewhat incredulous of Reich's ability to give her and fellow students "confidence to do things they never would have dreamed they could do.

"The thing you have to understand is, I'm horribly shy," says Falanga, who chuckles at the thought of how Reich got her to perform a solo as Queen Vashti in a Purim shpiel set to Broadway musical tunes.

Falanga was an adult bat mitzvah — she prefers to call it her "big day" – about six years ago and is a regular participant in his adult "B'nai T'fillah" program. Reich says the class shows congregants how "to do what I do," including chanting Torah and leading services, in keeping with his philosophy of a participatory membership.

That approach has the whole-hearted support of Rabbi Ferenc Raj. Noting that most cantors come from a formal background that often includes opera, Raj calls Reich's communal style "very unique and very special.

"We agree, both of us –we would like to have participants and not spectators. The prayers, they belong to everybody."

As he starts a new year of service, Reich says his job at Beth El is far from complete. "I've still got some work to do," he says. "I've still got music to compose and CDs to make and people to inspire."