Rabbi Andrew Busch remembers vividly what it was like to share the spotlight with Cantor Robbie Solomon when the two of them arrived at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation around the same time in 2008.
“To enter Baltimore Hebrew congregation [with] Cantor Robbie Solomon meant [that I was] announced over and over during my first year at BHC with some version of, ‘This is Cantor Robbie Solomon. He is nationally famous, he is internationally famous. … And here is the new rabbi,’” said Busch in his remarks at the congregation’s Night of the Stars on May 11.
The event honored Solomon and his wife, Helen, for their commitment and effort to better the congregation. Solomon will be retiring from full-time cantorial life following an illustrious 40-year career to spend time with his children and grandchildren in Boston. His last official day will be June 30.
Solomon grew up in Northwest Baltimore and attended Beth Jacob Congregation, where he served as the child leader of the service for the junior congregation on a number of occasions. “People used to say that my voice was good and I sounded like a cantor, and I wouldn’t take that as so much of a compliment because I was more into folk and pop music as a kid,” he said.
However, he was greatly influenced by a number of role models, including Hillel Lipsicus, cantor at Shul Petach Tikva during his childhood.
“I sang there during the High Holidays as a boy soloist, and one of the hallmarks of his cantorate was that he got people to sing,” said Solomon. “Even in davening, little tunes would come up, and people would join in.”
Solomon, 69, graduated from Gettysburg College while the Vietnam War was raging. Looking for a way to sidestep service for a cause that he did not believe in, Solomon attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College for two years, one in Cincinnati and one in Jerusalem.
“I ended up in Israel for four years during a very heady time in Israel,” Solomon said. “It was between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, so everything was very optimistic. I had a tremendous time there, and I realized that my calling was in music.”
Following the realization, he pursued musical studies at the Rubin Academy of Music, later continuing with graduate studies at Berkeley, where he was introduced to his band of 44 years, Safam, with whom he has achieved international recognition. Both individually and as a part of Safam, Solomon is accomplished in composition and singing, as well as playing the flute, guitar and a number of other instruments.
“Part of his charm is his modesty, as we learned this when we were interviewing for his successors who were all terrified to try to fill his shoes,” said Busch. “A lot of that has to do with his music. On June 9, we are having an unusual service made up almost entirely of Cantor Solomon’s musical compositions, starting at 7 p.m. It has never happened in the decade that he has been with us. On any given week, it is only one or two of his compositions that he chooses to use in our services. It is his choice to do so, in spite of his compositions being used widely across the nation.”
After returning from Jerusalem, Solomon worked part time as a cantor to make extra money, but he did not become a full-time cantor until after being mentored at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Boston, the oldest Conservative synagogue in New England. Surprisingly, he never attended cantorial school, instead becoming certified by both the Conservative movement and the Reform movement over time.
Solomon reflected on his time as a congregational cantor since moving to Boston during his brief remarks at the Night of the Stars.
“In my over 40 years as a full-time cantor, I have served in four major congregations, moving on from each one to take a better opportunity,” he said. “Baltimore Hebrew has been the best of all, the pinnacle of my career.”
While the congregation is eager to see what Cantor Sharon Kohn, its new clergy member, will bring to Baltimore, members of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation are sorry to see Solomon leave.
“His impact hasn’t been programmatic, it has been his heart and his music,” said Busch. “That’s where I put the real emphasis on his service here. We have become deep friends, and I am very sad to see him leave.”
Jo Ann Windman, BHC’s executive director, said that one of Solomon’s major accomplishments was bringing together a group of congregational volunteers to form Kol Rinnah, a choir.
“That group has only grown since he started; he has attracted many new congregational participants,” said Windman. “He has connected to many congregants not only through his music, but also through life cycle events, and he has made many friendships over the years. He is gentle-mannered, and he always has a smile, just a very easy-going person. He will be sorely missed.”
For his part, Solomon has mixed feelings about leaving. However, he reflected, “as I get closer, I realize that if you don’t retire while you’re healthy and you have energy, you can’t enjoy your retirement, so I want to make sure that I have the energy for this next chapter of my life.”
According to Solomon, his Friday night service blowout on June 9 will feature a string quartet, a woodwind trio and choirs presenting an evening of his compositions.