Why would a professional Jewish cantor decide to leave the East Coast for Tacoma, Washington?
Not the romantic kind, although that’s there for Geoffrey Fine, who’s just been hired as the new cantor at Tacoma’s Temple Beth El. But the community kind, where people are patient with one another in long bank lines and make you feel part of the family at worship services.
“People move all the time to new jobs, but in the cantorate it’s a calling to go where you’re needed,” said Fine, 53. “This congregation feels like moving home. There’s a sense of family here.”
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Fine is in town this week to meet more of that family and to meet the wider community at a free concert he’s giving Sunday at the temple.
An opera singer by training, he’ll sing music by Jewish Broadway composers (think “Annie,” “Les Miserables,” “Guys and Dolls”) and Yiddish folksong.
He’ll be joined in the latter by his husband, Joel Hencken, a keen amateur singer himself. The pair will be accompanied by Stephen Marshall Ward. Fine also will co-lead Sabbath services Friday (March 17) and Saturday (March 18).
Then he and Hencken will return to Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, to tie up their jobs and sell their home before Fine begins work in July.
It’s an appointment that’s highly emotional for the congregation at Temple Beth El, whose previous cantor, Leah Elstein, died suddenly after surgery just over a year ago.
In reform Judaism, a cantor is a key leadership figure: He or she leads services, sings prayers, directs the choir, conducts education classes, shares pastoral care with the rabbi and often conducts life-event services such as weddings and funerals.
In most synagogues it’s a full-time paid position, and it requires five years of post-graduate training at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, as well as extensive musical training.
Like a rabbi, a cantor needs to be trusted and loved by the congregation — and Fine has already won the heart of Temple Beth El.
“We didn’t have a full-time cantor after Cantor Elstein passed,” said Rabbi Bruce Kadden. “But last fall, since the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement high holidays are so important, we decided we needed to find someone to lead them.”
Searching via the American Conference of Cantors and various Jewish job websites, Kadden found Fine. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music and Tanglewood Music Festival, Fine had worked in opera and theater for years in the Boston area before deciding to be trained and ordained as a cantor.
When Fine led the Tacoma holiday services, both parties knew they’d made the right choice.
“The congregation fell in love, not just with his voice but his presence on the bima (pulpit) and his interaction with the congregation and choir,” said Kadden, who offered Fine the full-time job. “I thought he probably wasn’t about to leave his Boston home. But he felt the same way about us.”
“It was a wonderful experience,” Fine said. “The choir were so involved in learning things they’d never done before, like balance, breathing, thinking like a musician. …They were so enamored with that, and I with them, we learned from each other.”
As Fine sat in the temple’s visitor area talking to a reporter, congregation members kept passing and calling out, “We love him! He’s very good!”
And the love includes Hencken, who’s packing up his clinical psychology practice to move to Tacoma, and who’s already noticed how more relaxed people are here.
“We were in line at the bank and nobody was grimacing, nobody was tapping their toes, people were having friendly conversations,” Hencken said. “Sometimes you don’t realize how tight everyone is until you experience it differently.”
Fine has plenty of ideas for his new role at the temple.
As well as directing the choir and leading services, he hopes to encourage the teen leaders who’ve been holding down the fort over the last year. He’ll take adult education classes, prepare candidates for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and would love an interfaith choral festival.
He’ll also lead the second annual Pride Shabbat on July 14 —just after he arrives in Tacoma. It’s an event that holds a particular importance for Fine, who was rejected the first time he applied for cantor school in 1988 because he was gay.
“It was a learning experience,” said Fine, who was accepted in 1994 after the Jewish reform movement changed its policy on homosexuality. “It propelled me to want to be a cantor and have being gay not be a problem.”
Things have changed a lot since then; instead of worrying what people will think when he kisses his husband, Fine can concentrate on his calling as a cantor.
“It’s not just singing,” he said. “It’s not a performance. It’s inviting people into the warmth of prayer through music.” In Judaism, he said, “music pervades everything. When you have celebration, you have music. When you have losses, you have music…”
Being a cantor, he added, “allows me to embrace others and teach, to reach people’s lives. You become one big family. This is my new family.”
Jewish music from Yiddish to Broadway
Who: Cantor Geoffrey Fine, with Joel Hencken and Dr. Stephen Ward.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Temple Beth El, 5975 S. 12th St., Tacoma.
Also: Fine will co-preside at Sabbath services 7:30 p.m. Friday (March 17) and 10 a.m. Saturday (March 18).
Information: 253-564-7101, templebethel18.org.