Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler has hired Gary Gelender as its new spiritual leader. He replaces Cantor Adriane Caplowe, who left in July.
Gelender, 52, comes from Cleveland Heights, having lived in the Cleveland area his entire life. His involvement with Jewish music and community programming began in high school, but his love of music dates back to his early childhood.
At the age of 5, he discovered that he had perfect pitch; he could comprehend musical sound and recreate it perfectly without reading a note of music. From first grade until near the end of high school, Gelender attended the Cleveland Institute of Music.
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in music education from Kent State University, a master’s degree in voice performance at Cleveland State, and post-graduate work in vocal studies.
A tenor and piano player, Gelender received much of his on-the-job training at the synagogue where he grew up, B’nai Jeshuran in Cleveland Heights, a 1,000-family Conservative congregation. His mentor was Cantor Saul Meisels. Gelender led a youth choir of more than 90 children who performed all over the city, putting on shows and vignettes as well as leading youth services. His other mentor was Cantor Yehuda Shifman, with whom he studied chazzanut and nusach. “Both of these men were very instrumental in my becoming a cantor,” he said.
After B’nai Jeshuran, Gelender served Shaarey Tikvah, a smaller Conservative congregation in Beachwood, Ohio, as the head chazzan for 16 years. In 2000, Gelender and two others formed a new congregation, which he named Shir Shalom, or, “song of peace.” The synagogue was located in an “untapped” region of the outskirts of Cleveland and grew from three people to more than 60 families in a short time.
In addition to his deep involvement with Jewish music, Gelender worked as a music specialist in the Cleveland elementary schools for 25 years; he retired six years ago from teaching.
He also directed The Heights Youth Theatre in Cleveland. After retiring from teaching, he began freelancing, putting on three to four performances a week at Jewish nursing or assisted living homes. Those performances included Jewish music, classical compositions, show tunes and folk songs.
“I love musical theater as well as Judaic music; they’re both way up there on the chart,” Gelender said. “I love the color and timbre of Jewish music. When you’re in synagogue and praying, there’s a feeling about it that is indescribable.” he said. He does miss the theater, though, and hopes to resume that once he is firmly planted in Butler.
Gelender is charmed by B’nai Abraham.
“It’s such a beautiful sanctuary,” he said. “This is a Jewish building with so much history and so much richness; the leadership is just so encouraging and I’ve been received with welcome arms.”
While moving to a small town such as Butler from a large city such as Cleveland could pose a challenge, Gelender said the change of pace delighted him.
“I love the charm of a small town,” he said. “I really am so happy about the low key and slower pace. I see it as a great positive. It was beshert, a match made in heaven.”
Gelender led his first service at B’nai Abraham this past weekend. He plans to lead a tefilah prayer every Sunday, using a child-friendly siddur that he compiled himself. He is also looking forward to the six b’nai mitzvas that will be celebrated this year at B’nai Abraham.
While Gelender loves performing, he loves to interact with people more than anything, which he said is a “key element” of being a spiritual leader.
“Teaching and having people learn and grow spiritually is just a real big part of what I intend to do,” he said. “The venue is just wonderful. I really look forward to establishing a vibrant and dynamic program here in Butler, and I am also very excited to reach out and participate in things in Pittsburgh.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)