Take A Bow: Bruce Eicher Retires After 56 Years As Beth El’s Organist
By: Brandon Chiat, Digital Media Strategist
High Holy Day services at Beth El would be incomplete without the synagogue’s organ resounding throughout the vaulted walls of the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary.
Though uncharacteristic of a conservative synagogue, organ music has been a signature part of Beth El’s worship since the congregation’s inception. For the past 56 years, Bruce Eicher created those evocative soundscapes. As he nears his well-deserved retirement, Mr. Eicher reflects on his storied legacy as Beth El’s principal organist.
“One of the great joys of my career has been playing synagogue music at Beth El,” Mr. Eicher said. “The organ awakens certain feelings during worship, creating a unifying atmosphere that brings you closer to each other and God.”
Mr. Eicher first evoked those sacred sounds in 1963, when he filled in for a colleague during High Holy Day services in the Offit Auditorium. He became Beth El’s principal organist in January of 1964.
“Beth El’s liturgical music relies on improvisation,” Mr. Eicher said. “Cantor Hammerman rarely wrote down the music. Instead, he would ask for an introduction in a particular key or mode, and we would improvise together - mostly I followed him, but on occasion I would change the key, and he would follow. With Cantor King we more often used his beautiful settings of the traditional liturgy.”
Mr. Eicher said the congregation’s groundbreaking approach to music also applied to other areas of synagogue life. “I have always been impressed by the congregation’s generosity and willingness to accept me, a non-Jew,” he said.
Beth El’s collaboration with a non-Jewish organist demonstrates that chesed has always been a guiding value for the congregation. Mr. Eicher himself embodies chesed, helping Beth El build relationships with Grace United Methodist Church, where, since 1958, he has served as Director of Music and Organist.
“I had the pleasure of conducting the Grace Methodist Choir at Beth El,” Mr. Eicher said. “Rabbis Agus, Loeb, and Schwartz each spoke several times at Grace Methodist’s service and Cantors Hammerman and King have performed at the church as well.”
“One of the true joys of being Beth Elʼs cantor is having Bruce Eicher as my musical partner, mentor, and friend,” Cantor Thom King said. “His musicality, sensitivity, genuine kindness, and menschlichkeit bring unique meaning to everything he does.”
When Thom King auditioned to become Beth El’s cantor in 1997, he had the privilege of being accompanied by Mr. Eicher.
“Bruce considered retiring with Cantor Hammerman because it might prove too difficult to break in a troublesome new cantor,” Cantor King recalled. “We immediately developed a musical rapport and a collaborative instinct that has remained between us to this day.”
Beth El’s liturgical music has evolved with reverence for tradition and an eye toward the future, something Cantor King credits in part to Mr. Eicher’s musical sensibilities. Importantly, Mr. Eicher’s successor and protege, Michael Britt, possesses similar qualities.
“I can imagine no one more fitting to continue the tradition of magnificent music in our congregation than Michael,” Cantor King said. “Had we done a nationwide search for Bruce’s ideal replacement, we could not have found a better fit for Beth El’s musical future.”
Michael Britt first performed at Beth El in 1981, at the invitation of Mr. Eicher, his teacher at the prestigious Peabody Institute.
“Bruce taught me sight-singing and ear-training at Peabody, which are the skills required for musical improvisation during liturgical services,” Mr. Britt said. “It’s a great challenge for an organist to support the cantor musically without overshadowing; that’s only something I could have learned from watching Bruce play with Beth El’s cantors for many years.”
Mr. Britt attended countless Shabbat morning and High Holy Day services at Beth El, observing how Mr. Eicher complimented Cantors Hammerman and King.
“Bruce’s playing is incredibly illustrative,” Mr. Britt said. “The liturgy itself is emotional, but Bruce instinctively communicates the text through music, which creates the appropriate mood.”
Mr. Britt hopes to foster a seamless transition and to support Cantor King’s musical innovations for years to come.
“Cantor King has done a remarkable job at elevating the creative style of liturgical music,” Mr. Britt said. “It’s an honor to carry on Beth El’s musical legacy, and I look forward to serving this wonderful congregation, which I consider my second home.”
“Our congregation, choir, and I have been truly blessed to have Bruce Eicher’s beautiful and gifted soul as a part of the musical life at Beth El,” Cantor King said. “Bruce brought spiritual enrichment to our congregation for more than half-a-century, so he richly deserves being brought from behind the organ for some long-overdue recognition.”
“I’ve always held a tender place in my heart for Judaism and Beth El Congregation,” Mr. Eicher said. “As a church organist tasked with the awesome responsibility of performing Jewish liturgical music, I hope that I have exemplified the feeling that we’re all in this together.”