Some might see Broadway potential in this scenario: The Conservative congregation in Cranford, Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim, now has two Bens leading it, both in their mid-30s and both musical. Rabbi Ben Goldstein, who has led the congregation since 2010, has been joined by Cantor Benjamin Kintisch.
The two lent their respective talents to the musical potluck Shabbat the temple held on Friday evening, July 18, in the Hanson Park Conservancy in Cranford.
Together they led a kabalat Shabbat and sing-along with guitar and drum.
In his new role, Kintisch will also seek a different kind of harmony: He will also serve as education director.
Goldstein describes Kintisch’s hiring as “a great step for our community.” The rabbi, who is in Israel this week with the Rabbinical Assembly’s solidarity mission, told NJ Jewish News earlier this month, “We are excited for Cantor Kintisch to share with us his passion for teaching, his vision for education, and his infectious joy for Judaism. Whether it’s leading services and playing guitar, getting on the floor to tell our youngest children a story, or teaching a class for our adults, he has shown his ability to connect with all ages.”
Kintisch is succeeding longtime education director Tamara Ruben, who left earlier this year, and Cantor Shulie Hersh, who had served on a part-time basis since 2012.
Goldstein said the new position arose from a decision by the community “to see if we could have better cohesion by uniting the positions of cantor and educator. Instead of having a part-time educator and a part-time cantor, we were excited at the idea of what another full-time clergy/professional staff member could accomplish.”
He said, “We were not sure if one person would be able to fulfill all of our requirements, but when we met Cantor Kintisch, we felt he was exactly what we had been looking for.” The approval, he said, was unanimous.
The congregation leadership’s desire to find such a person reflects a growing trend. As budgets have grown tighter, more and more synagogues have been combining staff roles. Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark, which partners with Beth-El Mekor Chayim for morning minyans, has been led by Cantor Steven Stern for a number of years. At Congregation Ohr Shalom-The Summit Jewish Community Center, Cantor Janet Roth also serves as associate rabbi.
Kintisch himself leaped at the dual opportunity. “Not every religious education director wants to be the rosh tefilla,” or teacher of prayers, he said, but for him, “it comes naturally…. I find it great fun.”
Arts and education
Kintisch was previously based at Brooklyn’s Park Slope Jewish Center, where he served as cantorial intern, “Mini-Minyan” service leader, and rosh tefilla in the religious school. Brought up in Nyack, NY, some of his earliest memories are of singing along with his family’s rabbi. He majored in Judaic studies at Brown University in Providence, RI, and then did his cantorial studies at Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, before going on to teach for five years in the New York City public school system. Along the way, he got his certification in special education.
He and his wife, Elana Hoffman, have a three-year-old daughter, Dalia; the move to New Jersey meant uprooting the family from their Brooklyn community, but, Kintisch said, “this was too good an opportunity to miss.”
His approach is determinedly inclusive, he said, as he aims to make all students feel welcome and capable of succeeding. “All of us have special needs,” he said; “we just don’t have the paper- work.”
His staff will use not just music but also drama and painting and crafts. He said, “Integrating the arts into education makes it more lively and inviting for most children.” He favors a fast pace too, to keep kids stimulated and engaged — while also rewarding respectful, diligent behavior.
There are five teachers on his staff, and Kintisch has already introduced an innovation: He is inviting seniors in the community to bring their experience and talents to bear as assistants in the temple classrooms. Kintisch himself will teach the kindergarten and first-grade students, and he will work with children and their parents to enhance their involvement and understanding of Jewish worship.
For all his focus on the arts, he knows kids need to be active, and he believes in giving them “brain breaks,” frequent opportunities to get up and move about. He’s active too. He was an enthusiastic rugby player and is a committed bike rider. He and his wife have settled in Garwood, a 15-minute walk from the shul, and — more often applicable — a seven-minute bike ride.
Goldstein was so tickled when he first saw the cantor ride up on his bicycle, he took a picture and posted it on the temple website.
“Personally,” Goldstein told NJJN, “I am thrilled to welcome someone like Cantor Kintisch into our community. I am very excited to see what our partnership can accomplish. In getting to know him, he has inspired me to continue to dream, and to believe that anything is possible.
“It is not easy to decide to make changes in a community — people can be apprehensive about the unknown,” said the rabbi, “but when a community takes a bold step like this, there is no limit to what we can accomplish.