BANGOR, Maine — Eight years ago, Barbara Weitman was in a new city and new synagogue for the Jewish High Holy Days.
It was when she heard cantor Max Furmansky sing the prayers for Rosh Hashanah that she really felt at home in Bangor and at Beth Israel, Weitman said Thursday.
Weitman and more than 100 members of the congregation gathered Thursday to honor and bid farewell to Max Furmansky and his wife, Hilda. The couple has traveled to Maine from Israel for the past 12 years so he could be the cantor for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
“These two people have shown us how wonderful life is and can be,” Weitman told the congregation Thursday.
Beth Israel first hired Furmansky in 1998. He has returned to Bangor every year since then for the High Holy Days. The cantor, who will be 86 in March, decided this would be the last year he and his wife would make the long trip from their home in Kefar Sava in west-central Israel.
The job of the cantor, or chazzan, is to lead the worship of the congregants. He is a musical expert who knows what chant to use for each service or holy day. Not just any Jew with a good voice can be a cantor, Rabbi Steven Schwarzman told his congregation Thursday.
“He must be someone who is worthy of the job,” the rabbi said. “Before prayer books were printed, the congregation depended on him to lead the congregation in the prayers. Now, those who don’t know Hebrew depend on him for the same reason. He also must be of high moral character and know the Torah.”
Furmansky is a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished under the Third Reich, according to a story published 10 years ago in the Bangor Daily News. His 1988 book, “Through the Holocaust,” is an account of wartime years spent in ghettos, camps and hideouts. He was 15 — a student at the yeshiva — when his family was forced to give up their home and eventually their lives.
Throughout those years, however, he always sang, he told the BDN. Once, when the Germans demanded a group of Jews sing while digging their own graves, Furmansky, who was a teenager at the time, led the music. He began with a Zionist hymn and quickly added the Hebrew for “Let’s run!” The prisoners scattered among bullets, and Furmansky was one of the lucky ones who escaped.
Those horrors seemed far from the minds of those who came to honor the Furmanskys on Thursday.
“Thanks to the wonderful people of Bangor for this wonderful reception,” Max Furmansky said. “We will never forget you. God bless you and God bless the friendship between Israel and the United States.”
Then, the cantor did what he does best, he sang.
“Shalom, shalom,” he sang, “the nicest greeting you know. Even when you say goodbye, you say hello with shalom.”
Furansky will sing for the final time at Beth Israel on Monday for Yom Kippur services.
But he may be saying, “Shalom” to members of the congregation again before his next birthday. Schwartzmann is leading a large delegation of Jews from Maine on a trip to Israel in February.