Cantor Perry Fine’s only complaint about the change in his life is that after 25 years of being able to walk to shul, he now has a six-mile drive to his new job as cantor at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston. “But the fact that it’s close enough that we can stay in our house in South Orange — that’s really fortuitous,” he said.
Fine beamed with pleasure talking about his new position. After a rough phase last year, when his almost two-decade tenure at Congregation Beth El in South Orange was brought to an end, he said he finds himself in an ideal situation — close enough to maintain old contacts and involved with a 750-family congregation that totally supports his cantorial outlook, “a love of tradition but also open to new things.”
His installation was celebrated on Nov. 4, with a “musical Ma’ariv” service. Taking part was Fine’s close friend and colleague Cantor Henry Rosenblum, former dean of his alma mater, the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and now cantor of Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens. The program featured performances of contemporary and traditional music.
Fine and his wife Miki have a warm connection with Beth Shalom that goes way back. Miki, a former teacher at Golda Och Academy, has led the teen program at the temple for many years, and the congregation approached him to come work with them too about four years ago. “At the time I said I had a loyalty to the congregation I was with,” he said.
In February, Fine was invited to do a musical scholar-in-residence weekend at Beth Shalom. Congregation president Margie Wolfe said, “By the end of the Friday night service, the response was so phenomenal — not just to his davening but to the way he connected with the congregation — we knew he would be a perfect fit. We made him an offer very soon after that.”
That offer could not have been better timed. “I got it on the day I removed the last of my things from Beth El,” Fine said. He began working at Beth Shalom in June.
Welcoming the cantor to the congregation, its leader Rabbi Geoffrey Spector said, “His beautiful, soul-soothing, and inspirational voice will, no doubt, enrich our services greatly.” He mentioned too that Fine, who has served on the JTS faculty for 15 years, is a talented teacher of both children and adults.
He will be working closely with Cantor Sharon Knoller, who has been with Beth Shalom for 10 years, continuing the traditions established by its beloved Cantor Emeritus Henry Butensky in his four decades there. Fine is also working with the adult choir, and is eager to start a youth choir. “I want to bring ‘added value’ to people’s experience in the congregation, and to bring them things they haven’t had before,” he said.
Among the programs he’s planning is a Cantors’ Cabaret on Saturday evening, Dec. 1, with music from Leonard Bernstein, Ira and George Gershwin, and Marvin Hamlisch. There will also be a performance of numbers from Porgy and Bess by Voices in Harmony, the interfaith choral ensemble Fine cofounded 13 years ago. Ticket information is on the shul website, www.tbsnj.org.
About the only downside to his new position, aside from not being able to walk to work, is having to learn a lot of new names very fast. “I’m having difficulty with that,” Fine, 57, admitted with a grin. “But I’ll learn. It’ll get better.”
Gerry Halpern, a 20-year member of Beth Shalom, had heard Fine sing on visits to Beth El, and he was delighted when he joined the Livingston congregation. “He’s a wonderful addition in every way — as a clergyman and as a member of our community — to our services and our classes and everything we do.”
Halpern, who served as chair of the religious school for nine years and on the board of trustees for 12, said the feeling from the High Holy Days was very warm. “They were just the kind of services we want,” he said.