When Benjamin Kintisch showed up for his audition to be Columbia Jewish Congregation’s new cantor, he wore a suit and tie. The formal wear drew jokes, he said, but the audition, in which he led a service on his guitar, convinced him that the job was a good fit.
“The room just filled with song in the most inspirational and moving way,” Kintisch said. “Clearly this is a congregation filled with singers and lovers of Jewish music. They responded so nicely to the energy I put forth.”
On July 14, Kintisch joined Rabbi Sonya Starr to lead his first Friday evening Shabbat service as the Reconstructionist synagogue’s new cantor.
Kintisch, who has a background teaching music to children at Jewish camps and schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., said that being a cantor combines his love of music and passion for Jewish communal work. His primary focus, he said, is engaging people.
“My feeling is that when people are engaged, kids and adults, in exciting and dynamic music or any other activities, they become inspired and they want to come back,” Kintisch said.
Kintisch describes the role of a cantor in a Jewish religious service as that of a “music minister.” Cantors lead religious songs during services in addition to other various roles in the synagogue, including teaching and officiating ceremonies.
One of the cantor’s favorite ways to engage people in Jewish music is by incorporating his guitar into services. The guitar, he said, adds “musical texture” and helps people sing along or, if they can’t, “gives them something to listen to.”
When not leading services, Kintisch will study in the evenings in a clinical pastoral education program in Rockville, while doing clinical hours visiting with senior citizens there and in Columbia. With his background in education, the cantor also hopes to bring more programming to the congregation for families with young children.
Kintisch also hopes to find ways to connect with Jews who are not inclined to pray on a regular basis, helping them “discover different pathways to find meaningful Jewish experience.”
Kintisch moved to Columbia from New Jersey last month with his wife Elana; his 6-year-old daughter Dalia; and Rubia, a Labrador husky who is a trained therapy dog. One of the first things Kintisch did, he said, was plant a garden.
“I told my wife, ‘I’ll have flowers planted in the first week, even if I don’t have boxes unpacked,'” the cantor said. In addition to gardening, Kintisch is an avid cyclist and an advocate for criminal justice reform.
Kintisch said that he first considered becoming a cantor as a teenager, when older congregants at his synagogue praised his singing voice. He later took Judaic Studies at Brown University, focusing on the academic aspects of the religion. When it came time for graduate school, however, he returned to music.
“For me, I feel like Jewish music is a great way to build community in school,” Kintisch said, adding that keeping tired children engaged in weekend religious classes is a challenge that music can help with. He said he hopes to incorporate group songs, which are often used in Jewish camps, into Hebrew school at Columbia Jewish Congregation.
For adults, Kintisch hopes to spark discussions about Judaism’s role as a guide to a moral life.
“A Judaism that implies a sense of moral clarity about how to treat others and the world around us is one that gives me great meaning,” he said.
Most of all, however, Kintisch hopes to lead the congregation by focusing on what is “joyful and exciting” about Judaism.
“Not all of us are inspired in general by the obligation for Jewish prayer,” Kintisch said. “Many of us do so because we are excited or inspired.
“I hope as the prayer leader, along with Rabbi Starr, to help make prayer services more inspirational and meaningful,” he said.