Congregation Beth Chaim honored its cantor of 25 years, Stuart Binder, for bringing a “contagious” spirit of melody and learning to the Reform synagogue in Princeton Junction.
Also honored at the May 2 gala was staff member Dino Corradi, who has been with the synagogue since 1991, as well as 25-year members and long-time volunteers Karen Brodsky and Donald Leibowitz (see sidebar).
Binder, who joined Beth Chaim after his 1990 investiture at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, has played many roles.
For Rabbi Eric Wisnia, he is co-clergy, doing counseling, shiva minyans, funerals, and generally covering for Wisnia. “He is very active in every aspect of the synagogue, and I can rely upon him totally,” Wisnia said. “I have the greatest respect for his intellect. He is devilishly clever; he’s an expert guitarist, and as a musician, he can sing opera and can play guitar with the best.”
“And aside from that, he’s a nice guy,” Wisnia added.
Anne Berman-Waldorf, Beth Chaim’s director of lifelong education, said she appreciates Binder’s creativity, flexibility, and willingness to try something new as well as his clear respect for the traditions of Judaism. And, although he is shy and quiet, she said, he “has a wicked sense of humor.”
He is also tremendously patient, she said, and relates well to kids, really listening to them. “He respects their opinions, but he pushes them hard to think outside of the box,” she said. “And they push him, and he is willing to mull things around and look at them from another viewpoint.”
The number of congregation children becoming b’nei mitzva each year ranges from 70 to 90, and Binder and the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Adena Blum, do all the tutoring. “I have always worked with every kid,” he said. “In the past I had other tutors help me, but I found it has worked better and been a better experience for the kids if they are working with clergy the whole time.”
About his presence on the bima, Berman-Waldorf said, “He has a beautiful voice, but I think what we most appreciate about him as a cantor is that he welcomes the congregation to sing with him…. It’s not a concert.”
Binder has also been essential to the development of the congregational choir. Wisnia said the choir was started by Joseph Pucciatti of Boheme Opera and his wife, Sandy Milstein-Pucciatti, the choir’s accompanist, but Binder “recruited for it and made it work and blossom.”
Binder has revitalized the junior choir by expanding it to the entire religious school. “He stands on the floor with his guitar, and there is a lot of spirituality in the room,” Berman-Waldorf said. “His spirit is contagious. I’ve seen sixth-grade boys not only singing but putting their arms around each other and swaying to the music.”
Binder teaches both adults and children, but talked to NJJN in particular about the class that he teaches with Blum to eighth- and ninth-graders. “Our main goal is to help them find ways to make Judaism relevant in their lives; they are very busy trying to figure out who they are, and most of time they don’t think Judaism has anything to do with who they are,” he said.
Binder also leads music assemblies with the whole religious school. “The goal is for the kids to really have a lot of fun,” he said. “They put their arms around each other and rock back and forth. To me, that’s what it is all about — if they can have that much fun singing Jewish things, that’s going to have an impact.”