Russell M. Finer,
Executive Director, FSA
“If the rabbi is CEO, I would be the COO,” Russ Finer says. “I oversee the operations of the synagogue. I’m the go-to guy here. And to me, that’s very, very worthwhile.”
Chances are, if you’ve interacted with Beth Ahabah, you’ve talked to Russ Finer, the synagogue’s executive director. Whether it’s managing finances, helping new members, or ensuring the safety of the congregation during the high holidays, Russ probably has a hand in it.
“I could be on the roof at 8 in the morning, checking out a leak,” he says. “At 1 in the afternoon, I could be working on the budget. At 3 o’clock, I could be meeting with a bar or bat mitzvah, or a wedding family. I could be leading a shiva minyan when someone’s had a death. I could be scribing notes at a board meeting or presenting an overview of the synagogue to a church group or to a school group. My job changes every day, and that’s what’s so exciting about it.”
Keeping everything running smoothly isn’t just important to the business side of the synagogue. In Finer’s mind, a strong synagogue leads to strong congregants and a strong Jewish community at large.
“The synagogue, I see as the window to the Jewish world,” he says. “The synagogue gives you the basics that you need, and supports your needs, whether they’re emotional, physical, physiological, spiritual, educational. We’re here to be part of your Jewish life.”
It may sound like a daunting task, but Finer brings a long history of working in human services, Jewish organizations, anti-poverty agencies, and even a dash of the athletics world — he was a youth baseball coach for 18 years and a business consultant for the Springfield Spirit, a franchise of the NWBL. A career in temple administration was the perfect fit.
Now, in a job that’s all about handling the unexpected, it’s a good thing Finer likes to stay busy.
“Being a temple administrator means working with many people on a daily basis, often going in ten directions at the same time. It means never having a clean desk and never being caught up. It means striving to be creative, innovative and thrifty. It means speaking up when it is important and keeping quiet on confidential matters. It means starting your day early and often staying after everyone else goes home.
And, finally, it means praying to God that everything will be all right.”
Prior to becoming the executive director of Beth Ahabah, Russ served for 25 years in similar capacities at Congregation Shirat ha Yam of the North Shore in Swampscott, Mass., and Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass. He earned a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts and completed course work toward a Masters in Public Administration at Northeastern University. His proudest achievement? Of course, his children, Rachel and Daniel and his grandchildren, Dean and Miriam.
Music Director and Accompanist
“In the Jewish tradition,” Natan Berenshteyn says, “without music, there is no service. Jewish services are not read—they’re chanted.”
Bringing the musical tradition of our ancestors into worship services is precisely what Berenshteyn does as the music director for Beth Ahabah. “I am involved in everything that has the word music in it,” he says.
It takes a lot of scheduling and logistics—and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. He plans the “musical menu” for services that feature the children’s choir, adult volunteer choir, the professional choir, and the cantorial soloist, and ensures that everyone has their music in hand when it’s time to start practicing.
But music at Beth Ahabah includes much more than weekly and holiday services. Take the synagogue’s annual Purim Spiel production. “That is a two-month project where people meet and put the show together,” he says. “Members of Beth Ahabah write the script, and all of the music goes through me, as well as auditions, and the schedule. In reality, it’s a 12-month effort, but the majority of the work goes on behind the scenes.”
While producing everything from a Shabbat service to a special event requires a great deal of work behind the scenes, it’s Berenshteyn’s job to make sure the congregation never sees that.
“When you walk into temple on Friday evening at 7:30, it’s on,” he says. “It needs to look seamless and effortless, even though it’s not seamless and it’s not effortless.”
Berenshteyn has a bachelor’s degree in music education, focusing on choral music, and a master’s degree in music performance, concentrating on classical piano, both from Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to his work at Beth Ahabah, he also teaches full time at Atlee High School in Hanover County.
Frances T. Goldman,
“Music is an intrinsic part of Jewish liturgy,” Fran Goldman says.
Despite her recognition of the critical role of music in the worship experience, being a cantor wasn’t initially a career path she considered. When she graduated from college, women in the clergy were generally unheard of. Just a few years later, however, the tide began to change and Goldman took a job as a cantorial soloist with Congregation Or Ami in Richmond.
It wasn’t until she was hired by Beth Ahabah in the early ’80s that she became involved in professional cantorial organizations. She initially followed the movement of women cantors and served on a committee to review certification programs, but ultimately used the synagogue’s support to pursue her own certification in the early ’90s.
“It was a long process, but it was a perfect melding of my music, my art and my spirit,” she says. “It was a neat circumstance that I was able to pursue it and that Beth Ahabah supported it with their stipend for conventions and education. And then Jack Spiro actually invested me as the full-time cantor of the congregation.”
In her nearly 25-year career at Beth Ahabah, she counts bringing guest composers and musical programming, training bar and bat mitzvah students, and raising funds for a grand piano in the sanctuary among her favorite moments.
Through it all, Goldman witnessed a great deal of change—the growth of the synagogue, the role of women in clergy, even the evolution of music. She describes how congregations have shifted from ancient music and traditional chants, to classically composed pieces for choir and cantor, to the folk tunes that dominate modern liturgy.
“People now are singing much more folk style, and that’s fun,” she says. “But I would still like to see us maintain a connection with not only our ancient traditions, but also our more recent traditions, which are very rich.”
In the end, no matter the style, she says, music is at the heart of worship. “It allows people to participate and to connect, not only with their faith, but maybe even have a more personal relationship with God and their fellow congregants.”
Goldman earned a bachelor’s degree in voice performances from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, and a master’s degree in speech and theater, with an emphasis in opera production. She was certified and invested by the American Conference of Cantors and the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994. She retired from her position as Beth Ahabah’s cantor in 2004, at which time she assumed the cantor emerita designation. She is also a chaplain at Beth Sholom Life Care Community.
Rabbi Emeritus Martin P. Beifield, Jr.
Photos:Doug Buerlein (Russ Finer, Sarah Beck-Berman), Steven Longstaff (Natan Berenshteyn)