Ending months of debate among its members and an “exhaustive review” by staff and lay leadership, the board of trustees of Congregation Beth El in South Orange voted not to renew the contract of its longtime cantor, Perry Fine.
Board president Bill Gold notified the Conservative congregation of the vote results in a letter sent Oct. 30. He wrote that the vote was “carried by a strong majority,” and while emphasizing that “no legal improprieties” are involved, did not specify reasons for the decision.
Fine, whose contract ends in June 2012, has been with the congregation for almost 20 years. According to a letter, the board has yet to finalize with him how that remaining time will be handled.
Gold wrote that the board commended Fine for “his devoted service.”
“He has touched all of our lives and has had an especially positive impact on so many congregants, from youth chorale to Beth El’s Chevra Kadisha. We wish only the best for the Cantor and [his wife] Miki going forward,” wrote Gold.
Gold said a question-and-answer document would be issued within a few days, and a congregational meeting to discuss the decision is planned for Nov. 20.
Fine joined Beth El, which was founded in 1946, when Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein was its leader. Orenstein retired in 2005, and Rabbi Francine Rosten succeeded him.
The congregation has approximately 500 household memberships, according to its website.
Fine, who was away on vacation for the week, declined to comment.
Personnel decisions at synagogues are often the subject of wide and angry debate among congregants, especially in the case of longtime clergy members and staff. In May, supporters of Fine created a website, Save The Cantor, responding to rumors that his contract might not be renewed.
In his letter, Gold acknowledged that “this decision will upset and anger members of our community who have grown to love and respect Cantor Fine. I can only assure you that each member of this dedicated, tireless, all-volunteer Board searched his or her soul and conscience and did what he or she deeply felt was in the best interests of our synagogue and its members.”
One congregant who asked not to be named told NJJN that she and “many other members of the congregation” intended to leave the synagogue in response to the decision.
Gold anticipated such reactions. “The congregation needs to heal,” he wrote in his letter. “This has been a painful, emotional, acrimonious period, and we now need to set our sights on rebuilding the spirit of community and fellowship that has always defined the Beth El family.”
He told NJJN that the concern people might leave “was uppermost in our minds. Of course, we hope that everyone would stay, but either way, there would have been people who differed with our decision.”
As to the board’s decision, Gold said, “Organizations evolve, and sometimes it’s hard.”
Fine received his master’s of sacred music and investiture as hazan from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he has served on the faculty for the past 14 years. In June 2010, the synagogue held a gala concert at the South Orange Performing Arts Center to honor him for his 18 years at Beth El.
At the time, NJJN asked Fine what he regarded as highlights of his career at the synagogue. He cited helping members of all ages “develop skills to be better connected to the tradition,” his teen lay davening group, the burial society, and his choirs, both Beth El’s and the interfaith South Orange/Maplewood Voices in Harmony choir, which he helped create.
He said, “Being a cantor is not about singing; it is about people — being there for your extended family, your congregation during the best and worst of times, and sometimes using music to touch their hearts. It is about making a difference — or at least trying to.”