Cantor Henry Butensky, 94, ‘sang through Israel’

Cantor Henry Butensky, 94, ‘sang through Israel’

Cantor Henry Butensky
Cantor Henry Butensky

Cantor Henry Butensky, 94, of Jacksonville, Fla., died May 3, 2016. 

He was the cantor at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston for four decades, from 1958 until 1998. At his May 6 funeral, held at the synagogue, Rabbi Geoffrey Spector recalled the way Butensky led davening, “from the depths of his soul…, a human instrument in service to the divine.” 

Butensky received the Gates of Jerusalem medal and the Shalom Award for his work on behalf of Israel. Throughout his cantorate, he led over 800 visitors on trips to Israel and he was known, said Spector, for the way he “sang his way through Israel.” 

Butensky was beloved, said the rabbi, not only for his voice and his commitment to Israel and the Jewish community, but also for his way with both adults and children. “There is an entire generation in this synagogue that grew up listening to Henry, learning from him, and having their cheeks pinched by him. There wasn’t a ‘shayne punim’ [pretty face] anywhere in Livingston that could escape Cantor Butensky’s thumb and index finger,” said Spector.

Butensky’s portrait hangs in the synagogue near the offices where students came for their b’nai mitzva lessons with the cantor.

Butensky was an entertainer outside the synagogue and sang the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium on his 70th birthday.

Spector recalled in particular, the “gusto” of Butensky’s performance of “Rumania,” a classic 20th-century Jewish song by Aaron Lebedeff. When sung by Butensky, it “never failed to bring down the house,” said Spector, adding, “The notes would hang in the air and envelope everyone present in a fantasy flight to a faraway enchanted place…. The tempo would increase, with rapid-fire Yiddish phrases shooting out of Henry’s mouth like fireworks…. And when it was over, there was a huge smile on Henry’s face.” 

Although he declined, Butensky had been invited to audition for the Metropolitan Opera.

Butensky was born into a family that included five generations of cantors. He grew up in the Bronx, singing in synagogue choirs by the time he was six. 

He studied voice with Bernard Kwartin at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, and according to the Judaica Sound Archives, he was awarded cantorial certification from the Cantorial Academy in 1960. 

During World War II, Butensky fought in the Battle of the Bulge and took part in the liberation of several concentration camps. His experiences were captured in the 2001 book Holocaust Testimonies: European Survivors and American Liberators in New Jersey, edited by Joseph Preil and published by Rutgers University Press. He frequently shared his experiences with area high school students. 

Upon retirement at Beth Shalom he became cantor emeritus, and moved to Florida, where he served synagogues in Boynton Beach and West Palm Beach. 

He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Sally; his daughter, Helaine (Jerry) Lazarus; two sons, Jan (Barbara) and Sanford; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. 

Butensky was buried at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Iselin. 

Memorial contributions may be made to Temple Beth Shalom, 193 E. Mt. Pleasant Ave., Livingston, NJ 07039 or River Garden Senior Services Foundation, 11401 Old St. Augustine Road, Jacksonville, Fla. 32258.

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