Touching people’s souls
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Touching people’s souls

About to retire, Cantor Charles Romalis looks back at 50 years in one place, Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne

Cantor Charles Romalis
Cantor Charles Romalis

There might have been a time and place where 50 years could go by and very little would change.

Maybe in the Middle Ages, say, in some obscure, uncontested corner of some relatively peaceful kingdom, far from the seat of government. The people would change — probably the life expectancy would have been less than 50 — but the primitive technology, seasonal rhythms, and basic assumptions would go on.

That, needless to say, was then.

Now, someone who has a 50-year career as the cantor in one place — and by definition that is a very unusual person — sees a head-turning number of changes.

Take, for example, Charles Romalis, the (clearly, given the weight of the evidence) much-loved cantor at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne. Cantor Romalis began his job as the then still fairly new synagogue’s first full-time cantor, straight out of cantorial school. During his nearly unprecedented tenure, he has seen changes in just about everything, from the town to the country to the shul itself.

Cantor Romalis will retire in the next few months, when he will be given emeritus status. The synagogue has been without a rabbi this year, and Cantor Romalis will stay on until the new, still-to-be-voted-on-by-the-congregation rabbi transitions into the job. Meanwhile, the synagogue has been feting him all year with a series of celebrations — see the box for the parties and commemorations still to come — and the cantor has been taking the opportunity to look back over the last half-century and marvel.

Charles Romalis was born in East New York, Brooklyn, in 1944, to American-born parents, Morris and Anita Schlanger Romalis. Morris Romalis was a cantor, whose own father was not a cantor but had a good voice, loved to sing, and would have loved to be able to do so professionally. Morris Romalis, who studied and was ordained privately, had his own long stint — an ultra-respectable 36 years — at one synagogue. That was in the Fresh Meadows Jewish Center in northeastern Queens, where Charles Romalis moved when he was 9, and where he spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence.

The Fresh Meadows Jewish Center was “Conservative, almost Conservadox,” Charles Romalis said. It was a huge and successful synagogue, “with about 800 families and a caterer. My father sometimes did two, three, even four weddings a weekend.” (The shul since has fallen on harder times as its demographics changed — in other, more direct words, most of the Jews moved out of the neighborhood. Almost 15 years ago, it merged with the Flushing Jewish Center, and even so its membership is far lower than it had been at its peak.)

Charles Romalis always loved to sing. At Jamaica High School, he sang in the choir; at the Fresh Meadows Jewish Center’s USY chapter, he was Albert, the lead — the Dick Van Dyke part — in “Bye Bye Birdie.” He met his wife, Louise Rosenfeld, in choir in high school. “It was love at first sight,” he said. When he was Albert, she was Rosie. (That’s the Janet Leigh part.) They’ve been married for 51 years; she’s a recently retired social worker who began working with women on their way out of jail and ended helping military veterans getting back on their feet. The two still love to sing together.

When Charles was in high school, the entire Romalis family — his parents and his younger sister, Susan — would sing together in the Romalis Family Choir, performing for groups like Hadassah and ORT. Charles was a boy singer at weddings. “They don’t have those any more,” he said sadly. The family was close. Music was a powerful shared bond.

Other than that, Charles did not particularly relish being the cantor’s son. “I had to be the perfect model student — which I was not,” he said. “I think I rebelled more than anyone else.”

That meant that when he graduated from high school, with the war in Vietnam raging — the draft scooping up young men and depositing them to be shot at half a world away — college was a haven, a place to shelter at least for the amount of time it took to get a bachelor’s degree.

The problem was Charles Romalis’s grades. “They were not good enough for a public college, and my parents couldn’t afford a private college,” he said. He had wanted to be a dentist, but it was very clear very soon, at least to him, that that career path was closed to him.

What to do?

“I went to Hebrew Union College, because I thought that it was the only place I could get into, and I thought that it would get me out of the army.” HUC, now the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has four campuses. Cantor Romalis went to the one in Manhattan, which had a cantorial school. That means a few things. First, he went as an undergraduate, something that is not possible today. Now the cantorial school is for college graduates. Second, many cantorial students then picked HUC only because they thought it was their ticket out of the army. They did not intend careers as cantors, and in fact did not have them. Third, it is Reform, and Cantor Romalis grew up Conservative.

As it turned out, these last two points posed no problem for Charles Romalis.

“Within my first week there, I knew that this was it,” he said. “I knew that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”

He lived at home, and “my father and I went over the music together every night.”

As for the Reform part, “my father told me that he felt constrained by the Conservative movement. He couldn’t drive on Shabbat. If he wanted to go to a restaurant, he could only order coffee. He told me, ‘If you are going to become a cantor, do it Reform.’

“I love the Reform movement,” Cantor Romalis continued. “I love the organ.”

Susan, Anita, Morris, and Charles Romalis, here at Charles’s bar mitzvah, sang together as the Romalis Family Choir.
Susan, Anita, Morris, and Charles Romalis, here at Charles’s bar mitzvah, sang together as the Romalis Family Choir.

Of the 11 students in his year, he added, only two others became cantors. “And now, if you look at the directory, you see that I’m the only one from that time there.”

He’s the only HUC-educated Reform cantor to hold the same job for 50 years, he added.

It was during his time in school that Cantor Romalis first came to New Jersey. He was the student rabbi at Temple Sholom in River Edge.

In 1965, Charles and Louise got married, in May 1966 he graduated from HUC, and that July they moved to Wayne, where they have lived ever since.

When he first came to the community, Cantor Romalis had the same sensation he’d felt five years earlier, when he began his studies at HUC. “I knew that this was where I wanted to be,” he said. “I knew that I could come here, live here, and grow with the community, and with friends. And it all worked out exactly that way.

“My feeling is that the most important thing is that the community should be cohesive,” he said. “I try to mend, not to split.”

Cantor Romalis had interviewed and auditioned in larger synagogues, including Holy Blossom Temple, the huge Toronto institution, which offered him a job. “I just thought that they’d eat me up alive,” Cantor Romalis said. “I was only 22 years old, and those places are corporate.” He also was offered a job at a 1,000-family synagogue in Baltimore, “but I didn’t want to go to Baltimore.”

Beth Tikvah was a very different kind of place; smaller, younger, not at all urban. It was founded in 1956, by families who had moved from Paterson, Fair Lawn, North Bergen, and, surprisingly, Queens, among other places, to the wide green open farmlands of Wayne. (Of course, the Romalises also moved to Wayne from Queens.) The shul’s first full-time rabbi, Shai Shaknai, was young, exciting, and inspirational. It was Rabbi Shaknai who welcomed even younger Cantor Romalis to the shul. “He was the reason why I came here,” Cantor Romalis said. “He was my teacher at HUC; he felt the temple needed a full-time cantor, and he recommended me.

“He was a prince. Really a prince.”

We have no way of knowing what Rabbi Shaknai would have done, where he might have taken the synagogue, had he not gotten sick and then died at 37, three years after Cantor Romalis joined his staff.

Beth Tikvah’s next rabbi was Israel Dresner, a social activist who took on some of his time’s burning moral issues, and who is now the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus. “He was a Freedom Rider, he famously went to jail with Martin Luther King Jr.,” Cantor Romalis said. “He had an agenda that was mostly about social action, and he let me do what I wanted to do.

“So I did a lot of musical programming while he was off doing his stuff. I covered for him pastorally when he was away.”

The next rabbi, Stephen Wylen, who was there for about 10 years, was “a different kind of rabbi,” Cantor Romalis said. It was Rabbi Wylen’s departure last year that put Cantor Romalis in the position of having to take on many more pastoral duties than most cantors handle. It was, however, a position for which the last 49 years had prepared him.

Over his five decades at Beth Tikvah, Cantor Romalis has seen not only the synagogue but also the town change. “When I first came here, everything was about growth,” he said. “And then people got older. I am friendly with other people who also have been here for 50 years; about a third of the members are over 80, and we’re trying to build from the other end.”

Much of that situation, he added, is a direct result of economics. “It’s very expensive to live here,” he said. “When a young person is starting an adult life — how do you afford to live here, unless you have family money?”

The town changed too. What once was farmland is “now almost entirely developed,” he said. “It used to be vegetable farms, lettuce farms, dairy farms. There used to be a lot of vegetable stands by the side of all the roads.” But no, there never were any farmers who were members of Beth Tikvah.

The synagogue has a religious school, which now has about 100 students. “When I started, there were about 250, 275 children,” Cantor Romalis said. “It grew to about 630 kids in the late 70s, early 80s, and then people got older, and we didn’t have that influx. Forty, 50 families used to come in each year; now we are happy getting 10 or 11.” Still, he added, “100 students is still a decent size school.”

During his time at the shul, Cantor Romalis started programs that include the Renaissance Club, aimed at people 49 and older. “Together, we do things that range from breakfasts with speakers to weekends away. We’ve taken trips to Israel and to Europe, we’ve gone on Jewish heritage cruises, we’ve done a lot that has kept us together.” The group, of course, is aging, he said ruefully; “the millennials have their own way of thinking” that does not involve trips with synagogue members old enough to be their parents or even — and perhaps more likely — their grandparents.

He also started a choir, which used to meet once a month and now comes together a bit less frequently. Its members, though, are fiercely loyal to him and to each other.

Has the music he leads during services changed? “I try to do a blend, to make people feel comfortable,” Cantor Romalis said. “On the holidays, I will do some big cantorial pieces, and also some Debbie Friedman in between. I have tried to make that balance, and I think that it works.

“On Friday nights, I do more of the Reform repertoire, and on Saturday morning I do more to show the flavor of what Jewish music is. It’s very important to have both, and I like both.”

During his tenure, Cantor Romalis “taught every grade level here, from kindergarten to high school.” He also trained about 2,200 bar and bat mitzvah students. On the side, he was the president of his cantorial school alumni association and has been active in the American Conference of Cantors, the Reform movement’s cantorial association, holding many leadership positions there. HUC gave him an honorary doctorate in 2000.

He also was active in the outside world. “I was a real estate appraiser,” Cantor Romalis said. “I had to put my kids through college!” He and Louise have two children, Jenny and Joshua. Jenny’s husband is Wes Winters; Josh’s wife is Elin Westrick, and Josh and Elin have two sons, Taouyan Riis and Joah.

Cantor Romalis also was involved in Wayne’s Chamber of Commerce and helped organize its first Project Graduation, which steers kids away from trouble, in the form of drugs and alcohol, on graduation day.

Janice Paul of Wayne, who is now Beth Tikvah’s president, has been at the synagogue even longer than Cantor Romalis, so she has known him throughout his career there. “I was raised at Temple Beth Tikvah,” she said. “I grew up in Wayne. Cantor Romalis came there the year I was in kindergarten, and we shared the next 50 years. And now I am president as he celebrates 50 years here.

“I have a 14-year-old son,” she added. “His bar mitzvah was 16 months ago. For Cantor Romalis to have presided over all of my Jewish life-cycle events, and then to preside over my son’s bar mitzvah — it was just extremely special to me.

“We have been to Israel together twice, first when I was 16 and then when I was 38.

“He is an integral part of my family tapestry. And my story is not unique. He has been an integral part of so many family’s tapestries.”

Arthur Barchenko of Wayne was the executive vice president, in line to be president, when Cantor Romalis was a senior at HUC, half a century ago.

“Rabbi Shaknai and I went to the cantorial school and interviewed a number of candidates, and we chose Cantor Romalis,” Mr. Barchenko said. “He came to the temple with his lovely wife, Louise, set up a home here in Wayne, and took over the responsibilities of cantor and teacher at the Hebrew school.

“He matured and grew with the congregation, and through the years he and Louise played an integral role in the growth of the temple. And this last year, when we have been without a rabbi, he has been both cantor and rabbi, and he helped in the stabilization of the temple during this difficult time.

“He has been a very important part of Temple Beth Tikvah all these years.”

Mickie Strickler of Wayne, Beth Tikvah’s immediate past president, is in charge of the celebrations of Cantor Romalis during this year. “He is very beloved by everyone at the temple,” she said. “I have seen him do everything — -bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, baby namings. I have been to funerals where his elegies are just beautiful. And he lights up our services with music every week.”

Ellen Goldin of Wayne is both a member of Beth Tikvah and the head of its Hebrew school.

“He is unique,” she said. “No question about it. He engages everybody. He reaches out and touches people’s souls with his music, his personality, his kindness, his consideration. He is just a wonderful human being.

“When he conducts services, he does a lot of reaching out to the congregation to sing, and we are a singing congregation because of him.

“When you work with him, he is respectful and knows how to be collaborative. He is always interested in other people’s points of view.

“I know that I sound like a Goody Two-Shoes, but it’s true. It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime, the chance to know him and work with him,” Ms. Goldin said.

 

Celebrating Cantor
Charles Romalis

 

All year, Temple Beth Tikvah has been celebrating Cantor Romalis’s 50-year tenure. There are three more celebrations to come. They are:

 

On Friday, May 6, many of the approximately 2,200 students who became bar or bat mitzvah or were confirmed under Cantor Romalis’s guidance will gather for dinner and services at the synagogue.

 

On the evening of Saturday, May 7, the synagogue will host a gala in his honor at the Preakness Hills Country Club.

 

On Sunday, June 5, the year will culminate in the Jubilee Concert at the synagogue.

For information, call the synagogue office during the day at (973) 595-6565 or go to its website, www.templebethtikvahnj.org.

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