Chance meeting at food trucks brings cantor full circle

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The long lines at the food trucks outside Israel in the Gardens on a hot Sunday afternoon two months ago irritated plenty of people, but Cantor Brian Reich wasn’t one of them.

Standing in the sun waiting to buy a falafel, Reich noticed two people in the nearby pierogi line wearing Temple Israel of Alameda T-shirts and immediately struck up a conversation.

“What do you know about Temple Israel?” he asked them. “What do you want to know?” Kimberlee MacVicar shot back.

Brian Reich

A fifth-generation cantor, Reich began his career in 1984 at Temple Israel, the island’s 95-year-old Reform congregation, where he served until 1989. He recently returned to the Bay Area from a position in Poland, and in between he served congregations in Berkeley and Davis.

After he began talking with MacVicar, he realized he knew her grandparents from his early days at Temple Israel. Then the conversation turned to the synagogue’s search for a cantor and education director. MacVicar, a fourth-generation member of the temple and a co-chair of its fundraising committee, invited Reich to submit his resume.

Although he was looking at a position at another synagogue, “the idea of coming back to Temple Israel was kind of neat,” Reich said.

Two months later, Reich is the temple’s cantor and director of education. He started in July.

“You don’t know what a falafel will bring,” he said.

MacVicar (née Garfinkle) said the search committee “absolutely loved him. It moved very quickly. And it all happened because of this long delay, waiting 40 minutes to get food.”

She still marvels at how things fell into place. “What if we didn’t go to Israel in the Gardens? What if we didn’t have our Temple Israel T-shirts on? What if we’d bailed on the long line?”

Although he has had to adjust a bit to the purple interior at Temple Israel, Reich said, “the biggest change is in me.”

Among the experiences he brings back to Temple Israel, Reich counts his time as spiritual leader and scholar-in-residence with the Beit Warszawa congregation in Warsaw, where he served from 2011 to 2012.

Reich says people often ask him, “Are the Jews coming back to Poland?” But the answer is complex, he says, because “the Jews who are ‘coming back’ have been there all along.”

In Poland, he worked with many 20- and 30-somethings who were rediscovering their family histories.

One woman in her 30s told Reich about how, as a child,  she saw another little girl running around waving an Israeli flag. She asked her mother if that could be her flag, too. “Actually,” the mother said, “it is your flag.”

Another person Reich worked with had been raised Catholic, but always wondered why his grandmother served the children apples and honey every September.

Growing up, Reich and his siblings studied with their father, Cantor Israel Reich, who spent 25 years at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco. “A cantor’s cantor” noted a headline in the Jewish Bulletin atop his 1999 obituary. “The last of the greats,” his son said.

Today, Brian’s brother, Barry, is the cantor at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, and his sister, Linda Rich-Freed, is also a cantor. The three siblings and their father toured the country in the ’80s and ’90s as the Reich Family Cantors Four and also recorded an album.

Brian Reich describes his style of music as “Hassidic meets Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.” Last year he put out his own album, a blues-jazz-cantorial CD, titled “Yismechu-Rejoice.”

Reich and his Israeli-born wife, Orly, have five children and two grandchildren. They are enthusiastic sailors who also love Israeli folk dancing.

Reich said he is looking forward to working with Rabbi Barnett Brickner, another relatively new arrival to Temple Israel, “to make Judaism really happen on this island.”