When Bruce Radleigh Eicher was recruited to fill in for a colleague at Beth El’s High Holiday services, Rabbi Jacob B. Agus was the Pikesville synagogue’s spiritual leader and John F. Kennedy was president of the United States.
Eicher recently retired from Beth El after 56 years of serving as principal organist at the Conservative congregation of more than 1,700 families. It marks the third retirement for the 87-year-old native of Wayland, Iowa, who received his bachelor’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and his master’s degree from Baltimore’s Peabody Institute.
In 1997, Eicher retired from Peabody after 28 years of being a member of the music theory department and head of the ear training faculty. Six years ago, he retired from Grace United Methodist Church in North Baltimore after serving as organist and musical director there for 55 years.
Jmore recently spoke with Eicher, a Methodist who was raised in a Mennonite family, about retiring from Beth El. A father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he lives in Timonium with his spouse, Jorge Gaitan.
Jmore: Not many people can say they’ve retired three times from long-standing jobs. Is the third time the charm?
Eicher: I think so. [Laughs] But it’s not really that unusual. Musicians tend to scurry around to make a living. Many of them work and teach at different places. You do what you have to.
Why retire from Beth El now?
I was experiencing some little handicap creeping into my playing, and I didn’t want that to happen. I think my body was talking to me. It was time.
How would you characterize your Beth El tenure?
I love that congregation. I feel very close to many of the members there. I hope to be back for the High Holidays. I’d also like to take a class there, to bone up on what goes on at services. I can play the service, but I don’t understand everything that happens.
What was Beth El like back in ’63?
Well, it was a tad intimidating. It was different from where I’d worked before. It was more formal back then. Rabbi Agus was there, and I had to play at services on Friday nights and Saturdays. I was told he was the ultimate authority on anything regarding Judaism.
But why were you intimidated?
When I played at High Holiday services the first time, I couldn’t understand the Hebrew or this great cantor from Belarus who was filling in. He was a very sweet man, but hard to understand. I was stressed, but we rehearsed and it worked out fine.
Was this your first interaction with any Jews?
No, I played at a Jewish service in Philadelphia before that. And growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my first Jewish friend was Morton Weinberg in the fifth or sixth grade. I wonder where he is these days.
Also, when I was in the Army, I often found myself gravitating toward the Jewish soldiers. They seemed nicer and more sophisticated and genuine, in my opinion.
How’d you get the Beth El gig?
A college friend of mine had been hired for the overflow [High Holiday service] in the Offit Auditorium, but he couldn’t do it. He asked if I could do it. That opened the door. The following January, Cantor [Saul Z.] Hammerman asked me to be the organist and I accepted the job.
Any particular memories stand out from all those years?
There are so many. I remember the day that the Yom Kippur War started [in 1973]. I happened to take a break during services and went into my car and listened to the news. I heard that Israel was being attacked. The synagogue didn’t know, so I went in and told Rabbi Agus, and he told the congregation. Everyone was stunned.
Is playing the organ at shul services different than playing in a church?
You’re playing the liturgy of the different services, but a lot of the texts are the same. For instance, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – holy, holy, holy – are the words at a Protestant church service as well. So there are more similarities than differences, with little variations.
[Beth El’s musical liturgy] incorporates a lot of the tunes and modes used around the world, but in a contemporary setting.
What was it like to work with Cantor Hammerman?
A lot of the stuff he sang was not written down. So I played the introduction and then I followed him around. He really encouraged me to change the key when I wanted, and then he would follow me. That was unique.
And then you worked closely with his successor, Cantor Thom King?
Yes, he’s a wonderful guy and a wonderful friend. Cantor King is also a fine musician, and I truly enjoyed working with him. It worked out very well.
Memories of the late Rabbi Mark G. Loeb?
One of my favorite memories is going with him to Israel. It was a wonderful experience because I had him all to myself, and he knew so much. I remember we went to a Friday night service in Safed and saw things that the general tourists wouldn’t see.
He was just a wonderful colleague, and so knowledgeable. He would give a sermon and have so few notes. He just had a lot going on in his head. A very special person.
Was it tough juggling three jobs at the same time?
Yes, and at one point I resigned [from Beth El]. I think it was in the ’70s, or maybe the late ’60s. I just had too much going on and was raising a family, and I didn’t have any official day off. But the man who took over for me didn’t work out, and I missed the job. So I went back after about three months.
Did you ever feel uncomfortable being a Christian working in a Jewish milieu?
No, not at all. The people made me feel very welcome. They were always so accepting and warm. I think that Jewish people love to include gentiles in what they do. I’ve been invited to Passover meals and Yom Kippur break-fasts for many years. It’s wonderful.
Did you ever bring Grace United and Beth El together?
Yes. When Rabbi Agus was still the rabbi, we brought together the men’s clubs for a joint dinner meeting. Later, the choirs joined together and it was marvelous. At my retirement event, Beth El’s choir came to Grace United and sang with Cantor King. It was a very special morning.
Your future plans?
I plan to do a lot of traveling, as much as I can. I just love being in my home, relaxing and reading, working out at the gym and staying healthy.
What will you miss most about Beth El?
I’ll miss the people. There are so many lovely people there to be around. Rabbi [Steven] Schwartz is such a sweetheart and dear person. He would often come up to me at the end of services to give me a hug or a kiss on the cheek. It meant so much to me.
I won’t miss the stress of performing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt more stress about performing like that every week. I’m just happy that I did a good job, and now I’m done with it.
Are you leaving Beth El in good hands?
Yes, my successor, Michael Britt, is wonderful and has played at Beth El for more than 30 years when I couldn’t be there. He’s always been there to play, and he’s a wonderful player. I know he’ll do a great job.
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