Charles Romalis never doubted that he wanted to become a cantor. He was inspired by his father, a cantor in Brooklyn, and he grew up around liturgical music. And when it came time to find a career path, his choice was simple.
"When I entered cantorial school it was difficult times, during the Vietnam War," the 6′-year-old cantor recalled in an interview last week, "and rather than the possibility of going into the army I went to cantorial school."
After graduating from Hebrew Union College in New York in 1966, he found a job at Beth Tivkah in Wayne, and he’s never left.
So now, after he has served the Reform congregation for 40 of its 50 years, the shul will celebrate his career.
"It’s an incredible journey," Romalis said of his 40-year tenure at the shul.
He leads the congregation’s adult and junior choirs, as well as working with b’nai mitzvah students and their families.
"He’s been a source of continuity in the life of the congregation in a period of three different rabbis," said Rabbi Stephen Wylen, who has worked with Romalis for the last 11 years. "He’s been an extremely positive and calming force in all the ups and downs of the congregation."
Wylen summed up his colleague in one word: "Compassionate. He cares about people." He paused and then changed his mind. "Beloved would be better. He really symbolizes the warmth of the congregation. A congregation should be an extended family. Our cantor symbolizes for us that feeling. He’s a focus for so much of the positive things that go on."
Romalis said he wants the congregation to feel "that I’m there for them. I’ll do anything for them to make a joyous occasion more joyous, making them feel better about what’s going on in their lives that they can come to me for help and for joy as well."
Beth Tikvah will hold a special service tonight in his honor, followed by a special dinner on Sunday, featuring speakers and musical guests. Cantor Marshall Portnoy, a national vice president of the American Conference of Cantors and a cantor near Philadelphia, will address the congregation on Friday night. Portnoy has known Romalis through the ACC for roughly a decade.
"He’s a wonderful, wonderful man and that congregation is so lucky to have him in their midst for four decades, Portnoy told The Jewish Standard, hinting at tonight’s speech. "It’s an honor and a pleasure for me to speak about Cantor Romalis. I find him to be one of the most gentle, wise, and spiritual people I know. I think he’s a person that acts the role of a chazzan from his heart and I think he’s an inspiration."
Beth Tikvah is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year its jubilee year. Romalis looks forward to his own jubilee year of service to the synagogue. And after that? He’s not sure yet but retirement isn’t on the radar.
"My whole family sang. My wife, Louise, has a beautiful voice, my kids have beautiful voices," said Romalis, whose daughter, Jenny, 36, works as a Jewish professional in the congregational Hebrew school, while his son, Josh, 3′, is an associate Peace Corps director in West Africa.
"I really don’t see it as a job," Romalis said. "I see it as a calling just to be here for people on every single level of their lifecycles. Weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, my own personal singing, the choir all of that is very fulfilling."