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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Beloved Cantor bids farewell after 25 years of service

Cantor Ron Eichaker
Cantor Ron Eichaker

If you’re going to retire, you might as well go out with style. And that’s exactly what United Hebrew Congregation has planned for Cantor Ron Eichaker when he retires Aug. 31 and transitions to his new role as cantor emeritus.

The first “stylish” farewell will take place at 6 p.m. June 7 at the synagogue, when Grammy Award-winning soprano Christine Brewer joins Eichaker in a musical tribute to St. Louis Arts and Faith. The two have appeared together several times at the annual Arts and Faith Concert at the Sheldon.

Then on June 8, from 4 to 7 p.m., a cocktail event celebrating Eichaker’s transition to emeritus status will take place at the Reverie in Chesterfield.

And finally, on Aug. 30, Eichaker will be honored at a farewell Shabbat service.

At 68 years old, the “standard” age of retirement at UH, he says he and his wife, Heidi, who have two married daughters, are ready for their next chapter, though he still plans to stay in St. Louis and connected to the congregation that he has served for 25 years.

“My plan is to do whatever Heidi wants me to do. She gave me 40 years of opportunities to do what I needed to do, and we agreed that the next 40 years, if I’m offered any kind of position, any kind of responsibilities, I’m going to go to Heidi first and say, ‘What do you think?’ ” said Eichaker when we chatted recently.

Over the years, Eichaker has been the subject of several Jewish Light stories, largely because he is a man of many talents. In 2018, I wrote about him becoming an ordained rabbi, as if being a cantor wasn’t time-consuming enough. He explained that during summer sabbaticals from UH and his “free time,” he studied at the Rabbinical Academy of America. Typically, a four-year program, Eichaker, managed to finish in two years.

Over-achiever, I wondered? Eichaker preferred the phrase “aggressive academic.”

Two years prior, in 2016, the Jewish Light chronicled how Eichaker had coached a young woman at Brentwood High School who had qualified to compete in the javelin at the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team trials. Obviously, he was the man to do it. In 1976, Eichaker had qualified for the men’s U.S. Olympic Team in the javelin. Unfortunately, while training for those Olympic Games in Montreal, he injured his elbow, needed surgery and was ultimately unable to compete.

Nevertheless, he was an elite athlete and until very recently was a registered throwing coach/consultant for USA track and field.

And then there are his many musical talents.

As we chatted the other day, Eichaker casually mentioned how he was asked by Joseph Papp, the legendary Broadway producer and director who founded the Public Theater in New York, to audition for a limited-run, off-Broadway play called “The Haggadah” by Elizabeth Swados. Eichaker, who at the time was in his last year at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, received the OK to do so, and wound up getting the part.

“The show finished in June, which was great, because I had already signed a contract with a congregation in Wilmington, Del.,” Eichaker said. “During the time (early 1980s), there were casting directors calling me. There was a defunct pilot called ‘The Three Musketeers’ and somebody wanted me to take the part of Athos. I was offered several beer commercials. I was offered the part of Marlboro Man in Europe.

“I turned them all down. A lot of my colleagues said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said I came to New York for the expressed purpose of graduating as a cantor. It was sort of like the reverse of ‘The Jazz Singer.’ ”

Eichaker explained that he really wanted to be a cantor, that was his focus. Before coming to United Hebrew in 1999, he served Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee for 16 years.

In his role at UH, Cantor Eichaker has left an indelible mark on congregants and the broader St. Louis Jewish community. Over the years, he has pursued and implemented an array of programs and initiatives that may appear outside the realm of the standard cantorate. His “whole life” approach to Jewish living and learning is expressed through his interests in world music, ethnic cuisine, classical Jewish philosophy and liturgy.

He has taught cantillation at the Reform Jewish Academy and then the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. He also serves as a chaplain for the Ballwin Police Department.

When I asked if he’s ready to retire, he chuckled and said: “There are 68 reasons why I need to be dialing back. I don’t want to be the Willie Mays of the clergy. I don’t want to go out to centerfield and run full speed into a wall while I’m still doing my thing in front of thousands of people. You know when enough’s enough, when it’s time to leave the party.”

Nevertheless, those who have worked closely with him will miss his daily presence. UH Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg says Eichaker has been a “great partner and person” to work with and is always up for anything.

“Over the years, but especially during COVID when we had to close down and rethink everything, it was amazing to be on the same page and to be creative together about ways to still connect with congregation,” she said. “We did crazy things. He got into recording services at different places. I can remember we went to the R&R ranch, where they have the mini horses. We were doing a night of Hanukkah and there were these mini horses in the barn. Each of us got nipped by one of the mini horses — it was pretty funny. Together, we’ve had those types of funny experiences.”

Like many who have seen him perform, Rosenberg is awed by Eichaker’s musicianship and his voice. She is also impressed with his humility.

“If somebody, a kid, an adult, wanted to sing or play an instrument on the bimah, he was always about how do we make this the best experience for that person, how do we highlight that person,” she said. “That person would be front and center and (Eichaker) was the one in the background, which is a really special thing.”

And while Eichaker seems ready to retire, he says the past 25 years at UH have filled him up in the best ways possible.

“I’ve never had a bad day here,” he said. “I’ve had bad moments, but remember, the Oxford English Dictionary measures a moment at 90 seconds. I’ve never woken up saying, ‘I don’t want to go.’ I think that speaks volumes not just to the synagogue and the people who work here, and attend here, but I really feel proud that I’ve been able to develop, sustain and forward a position that has allowed me to feel this way.”

Eichaker will be succeeded by Shirel Richman, who was born and raised in Jerusalem and recently ordained as a cantor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

For more information on these events and tribute options, visit https://tinyurl.com/CantorEichkarCelebration

 

 

 

 

 

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