Cindi Topolski vividly remembers attending High Holiday services as a child at Temple Emanuel in the Milford Mill area and being roused by the booming baritone of Cantor Alvin Donald.
“He had that wonderful, loud voice,” she said. “He really woke you up when he sang.”
Cantor Donald, who served Temple Emanuel from 1962 to 1991 and became the congregation’s cantor emeritus, died on Apr. 13 from a coronavirus-related infection. A Park Heights resident, he would have turned 93 on May 18.
“He touched so many, many lives,” said his daughter, Pikesville resident Joyce Axelman. “I’ve been getting so many calls from all kinds of people in recent days who he mentored and counseled and married. He was just a wonderful, special man.”
Topolski, a past president of Temple Emanuel, which in 2016 merged with Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, called Cantor Donald “a wonderful man and a good friend. He always had a smile on his face and something nice to say.”
In a Facebook post, Jake Holland, the cantor’s grandson, called him “one of the best men I ever knew. No one has ever been there for me as much, and from music to sales to off brand jokes we shared so many interests. … The world has lost a great baritone, and a great person and I have lost a great friend and inspiration. Love you granddad!”
Cantor Donald, who grew up in an Orthodox household in East Baltimore, was a graduate of Baltimore City College and Talmudical Academy. As a child, he performed with such singing groups as Uncle Jack’s and Uncle George’s Kiddie Clubs on radio station WFBR.
During World War II, Cantor Donald enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17 and was assigned to the Bainbridge Naval Training Center in the Cecil County town of Port Deposit, located nearly an hour northeast of Baltimore.
“He was always proud of the fact that he single-handedly kept enemy submarines from operating in the Chesapeake Bay, particularly during summer crab season,” the cantor’s family members wrote in an obituary for Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home’s website.
After the war, Cantor Donald worked for a while as a salesman and attended Chizuk Amuno Congregation. In 1962, he became the cantor at Temple Emanuel, which was founded seven years earlier.
During his decades at the Reform temple at 3301 Milford Mill Rd., Cantor Donald officiated at countless Shabbat and holiday services with Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl, who is now Emanuel emeritus rabbi at BHC.
“Alvin Donald was a delightful human being with a gorgeous voice,” said Rabbi Buchdahl, who served at Temple Emanuel from 1963 to 2000, and as rabbi emeritus there from 2000 to 2016. “His vocation in life was to make people happy. He succeeded.”
Topolski said of Cantor Donald and Rabbi Buchdahl, “They were just a great team. They were foundational — very inspiring clergy. They worked together very well, and it was just a great atmosphere. Between the two of them, it was a great example of inspiring leadership.”
Over the years, Cantor Donald developed a reputation for being one of the few Jewish clergy members in the area willing to officiate at interfaith wedding ceremonies at that time. Although receiving criticism from some segments of the community, the cantor considered performing that service an important component of his pastoral duties.
“He was great and worked with people and allowed them that privilege,” Topolski said. “He was known for it, and faced criticism for it as well.”
Axelman noted that Cantor Donald was also amenable to co-officiating at weddings with clergy members of other faiths.
“For years, he was probably the only [Jewish clergy member] in the area, from here to D.C., who would do it,” she said. “He just felt that some religion is better than none at all.”
According to the family’s obituary, the last wedding ceremony officiated by Cantor Donald was two years ago for the nuptials of his granddaughter, Stacey Holland, to Adam E. Konstas of Baltimore.
After retiring from Temple Emanuel, Cantor Donald officiated at High Holiday services in the Baltimore area and in Florida. He also officiated at weddings, baby-namings, funerals and other requested services.
In his spare time, Cantor Donald enjoyed working out at the Pikesville Senior Center, meeting up with friends for breakfast, playing poker, telling jokes, fly-fishing, and following the Orioles and Ravens.
In particular, Topolski recalled the cantor being part of a friendly weekly card game with her father and other Temple Emanuel congregants.
“I have so many wonderful memories of all the days gone by,” she said. “He married my brother and was the cantor at my sister’s wedding. It’s a real loss.”
In their obituary for Cantor Donald, his family wrote, “Al will be sorely missed by all who know him. He was always quick with a joke or a piece of serious advice when needed. He accepted the world and all people as they were, not as someone else wished they would be. He was also ready to assist anyone whenever needed.”
Cantor Donald is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Geraldine Abarbanel Axelman; his son, Mark (Sharon) Donald of Lakeland, Fla.; his daughters, Karen (Donald) Hesse (Randy) of Brattleboro, Vt., and Joyce (Ray) Franklin; his grandchildren, Briana (Donald) Boston (Daniel) of Lakeland, Fla., and Stacey and Jake Holland of Baltimore; and his great-grandchildren, Asher, Calder and Falkner Boston, as well as his grandchildren Kate Hesse and Rachel (Hesse) Johnson (Matt), and a great-grandson, Aidan Johnson.
Cantor Donald was previously married to the late Frances Broth.
Rabbi Buchdahl will officiate at a small private interment for Cantor Donald on Apr. 17 at Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Dundalk. A memorial service to celebrate Cantor Donald’s life will be held at a later date.
Contributions in his memory may be sent to American Friends of Magen David Adom, 352 Seventh Avenue, Suite 400, New York, N.Y. 10001