On a recent Monday evening, Robert Orenstein arrived at the Freehold Jewish Center-Congregation Agudath Achim in time to have dinner with a group of prospective b’nei mitzva students. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, he serves as cantor for the Traditional congregation.
The rest of the week, he studies liturgical music in Riverdale, NY, or looks after his business in Chicago, where he lives.
It can be tiring, he admitted, and he has gotten ill a few times, but he has welcomed the opportunity to help the congregation heal following the death last October of its recently hired cantor, Alan Smolen. Since November, Orenstein has been serving as interim cantor at the center. He was appointed to complete Smolen’s contract, which ends July 31.
He acknowledged that coming in under such circumstances “was challenging initially,” adding, “but I think we’ve moved on.”
Rabbi Kenneth Greene also said that the congregation has adjusted to the sudden loss of its former cantor.
“They feel fortunate to have found someone with the talents of Cantor Orenstein,” Greene said. “They also understand that he doesn’t yet have the years of professional experience that Cantor Smolen had, but they appreciate all that he is doing for us. He’s very warm and outgoing.”
Despite a life-long passion for liturgical music, it wasn’t until Orenstein was in his early 50s that he decided to begin formal cantorial studies. He has an insurance and financial planning business in Chicago, and is a second-year cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale.
He grew up in Minneapolis, attending the Talmud Torah center that drew students from the city’s three Conservative synagogues. He attended Camp Herzl in Wisconsin, the same summer camp where Robert Zimmerman — later known as Bob Dylan — attended and played guitar. Another Herzl camper — singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman, who died a few weeks ago, came from across the river in St. Paul, Orenstein recalled.
As for the synagogue where he had his bar mitzva and started his cantorial duties, it is featured in the 2009 comedy film, A Serious Man, “with many of the real congregants’ names,” he said.
Orenstein said he has taught “countless” b’nei mitzva students, and for seven years served as a tenor in a professional High Holy Day octet.
In effect, he said, “I’ve been serving as a cantor for 40 years, since I was 14.”
He is divorced and has two daughters, 24 and 19. When his younger daughter opted to attend college at SUNY-Binghamton, Orenstein considered moving east to be nearer to her, and then realized that would make it possible for him to study at AJR.
Now he flies to New Jersey early on Friday morning and settles into his rented room in Long Branch. He sings at services on Friday night and Saturday morning, relaxes on Sunday, perhaps with some basketball at the JCC of Monmouth County in Deal, and then attends classes in the Bronx on Mondays and Tuesdays. He flies home to Evanston, Ill., Tuesday night and spends Wednesday and Thursday “trying to catch up with my work and meet with my clients.”
Smolen, 46, committed suicide last October, three months after joining the congregation. An Illinois native, he had moved to FJC after serving for four years at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor City. His funeral was held in the Chicago area; the Freehold congregation held a memorial service for him in late November.
Orenstein, who had come on board a few weeks earlier, took part in the memorial and described it as very moving and a kind of “closure for the community.” He had met Smolen a few times at services in Chicago and had heard him sing. “He was really quite a guy,” he said.