After 1,565 b’nai mitzvah, many more Shabbat services and commissioning 32 major liturgical compositions during 40 years at University Synagogue in Brentwood, Cantor Jay Frailich is retiring.
Frailich, 67, has been with the Reform congregation on Sunset Boulevard since 1974, immediately following his investiture by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music in New York. A Friday-night service was held June 13 to mark the end of his time at the temple and to honor his work.
Originally from Minneapolis, Frailich came to Los Angeles excited and ready to accomplish his dream of commissioning composers. Four decades later, he has achieved that and more by establishing connections with his congregation and significant composers.
Past musical partners include Craig Taubman, Maurice Goldman, Aminadav Aloni and Michael Isaacson, whose “To Recreate the World” was jointly commissioned by a consortium of dozens of congregations from across the continent under Frailich’s leadership. First performed in 2000, the piece represents the largest commission of Jewish liturgical music in history, according to Frailich.
“That was absolutely thrilling for me, to work with those [composers], also in the sense to guide them to what I wanted,” Frailich said. “But it was also challenging.”
Aside from his work at the synagogue of about 500 member families — where Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro will begin working in July — Frailich is a professor of liturgical studies at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.
Roughly 600 people gathered to celebrate the local cantor at the service earlier this month, including his two daughters, Lonee and Reena, four grandchildren and wife Sandy.
Lonee Frailich, currently cantor of Temple Akiba in Culver City, grew up admiring her father’s “soulful” singing every Shabbat. She recalls his leadership in the Jewish community and the extended list of works he has commissioned.
“The reason that I am who I am today is because of my father. He was always so happy and fulfilled in his calling as [a] cantor,” she said. “I watched throughout the years as he brought a passion for Judaism, a sense of spirituality and so much love to the thousands of congregants he served in his 40 years at University Synagogue.”
Jay Frailich now looks to his daughter, who has followed in his footsteps, and is equally proud of her.
“It’s pretty exciting when you have your daughter to pass the torch to,” he said.
At the service, father and daughter sang together. Later, his colleagues added to the praise about his dedication and enthusiasm for the congregation.
“Jay has been the heart and soul of our warm and engaging congregation for 40 years,” Rabbi Morley Feinstein said. “His love of Judaism and Jewish music has been infectious. His students have gone on to become rabbis, cantors and synagogue presidents. And his humor has kept us all smiling.”
Members of the congregation in attendance were indeed all smiles to greet and congratulate their longtime cantor at the end of the service, but sad to see him depart from his role. Joy Cohen, a member of University Synagogue for 35 years, has thoroughly enjoyed his presence.
“He really does care about people. He knows how to keep a secret. I know people who have been helped by him. I will definitely miss him,” Cohen said. “After 35 years, it’s hard to know that you’re no longer going to hear his voice — it’s a part of services.”
Written remarks from Mayor Eric Garcetti, and U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) about Frailich’s career were shared with the congregation.
Frailich said that, among the many compositions that he has been involved with, a couple of his favorites are “Crown of Torah” by Ben Steinberg, a Canadian composer, and Isaacson’s “To Recreate the World,” a response to the secular millennium and the changing environment.
Recounting these experiences and more, Frailich said he leaves happy and fulfilled.
“Whether we have prayed together, sung together, learned together, celebrated together or cried together, it has been my privilege to do these things with you,” he said during the service. “As I end the active phase of my career and transition to emeritus, my retirement should not be thought of as goodbye — I’m not going anywhere.”