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Westbury synagogue marks cantor's 50 years

Kalman Fliegalman was a 12-year-old yeshiva student in

Kalman Fliegalman was a 12-year-old yeshiva student in 1940 when a talent scout heard him sing and put him on the radio. But he had another calling -- to become a cantor. This week he celebrates 50 years as cantor of Temple Beth Torah. (May 3, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

A tent big enough for legions has risen in recent weeks in the parking lot behind Temple Beth Torah in Westbury, and a sign out front proclaims in block letters: "Mazel Tov -- Cantor and Carol 50 years at TBT!"

Cantor Kalman Fliegelman and his wife, Carol, arrived here five decades ago, newly wed, in their 20s, and in search of permanent employment.

She taught Hebrew. He was a clergyman and musician. But he didn't give sermons; and his songbook was dated -- composed of ancient prayers, sung for thousands of years.

For the next 50 years and counting -- at 74, he says he will serve as long as he is wanted and able -- he would lead the congregation in prayer, ready the children for bar and bat mitzvahs, officiate grown-ups' weddings and, when needed, chant at their funerals.

In the beginning, the congregation had just 80 families, mainly from the Westbury Hills subdivision; services were held in a barn with a Star of David on its front. The temple president knew a selling point. "Grow with us," he said.

"Even as a kid, I knew this was what I was going to do," Fliegelman said in his office the other day, sketching his life's trajectory: born in Poland, desperate escape to Siberia when the Nazis came, three years in a U.S.-administered refugee camp after the war. "The Germans would throw rocks at us and call us dirty Jews," he vividly recalled of the camp.

Then to New York City in the bowels of a ship: "When we got off, I was carrying my violin. The photographers had me take it out . . . and play. They took that picture -- it ran in all the Brooklyn newspapers."

He spent his teens in Bedford-Stuyvesant, when there was "a synagogue on every other block." He sang at some of them. A talent scout heard and put him on the old WEVD/1050 AM radio. The pay -- $500 for three days of singing -- was good money his family needed. "You know, kid, you're singing for millions of people?" someone said before he went on for the first time. "My feet shook when I heard that."

"Kol Nidre" was the first prayer he sang at Westbury, on a Sunday tryout, with an audience of the temple president and a few others. He evidently nailed it.

He'd been raised in the Orthodox tradition, and Beth Torah is conservative. "I made many compromises," he said.

He began a junior congregation -- for children and families with kids -- with shorter services; he began teaching Hebrew to women, many of whom had never been bat mitzvahed.

"There's always resistance. People get used to it. But they asked, and they're easier to teach than the men."

Fliegelman says his voice is lower these days. He gargles with salt water before singing and stays away from some of the high notes.

A 50-year tenure for a cantor is rare, said Nancy Abramson, director of the Jewish Theological Seminary's H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music in Manhattan. Cantors and rabbis sometimes clash; cantors' voices wear; they retire.

If Fliegelman's half-century is not a record, she wrote in an email, it is close. "It is something that hardly happens now," she wrote. "Most synagogues do not 'keep' a cantor from the beginning to the end of a career."

So, Sunday under the tent, the congregation, grown to 385 families, will celebrate the Fliegelmans. Some of the 1,600 children he mentored, and some of the hundreds of couples he married, will be there.

There will be a buffet, said Carol Fliegelman, followed by fancy desserts and speeches. And one more thing: "He's not going to sing. They're bringing in two guest cantors for that."

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