For 36 years, Charlie Bernhardt has been the cantor at Oseh Shalom Synagogue on Olive Branch Way. The number is significant in the Jewish faith as the two Hebrew letters that spell the word “chai” – meaning life – have numerical equivalents that add up to 18.
Bernhardt’s double chai (pronounced kh-ai) is being recognized at the synagogue with a series of musical events throughout the year that began in April with a bluegrass concert and continues on June 15 with “Jews and Broadway,” a presentation by Steven Friedman. Bernhardt will perform, along with friends, in the final event on Sept. 14.
“They’re making a big deal out of it,” Bernhardt, 65, said. “I’m grateful.”
From baby naming ceremonies to bat mitzahs, weddings and funerals, Bernhardt has been part of “ so many lifecycle events for families.”
“From the happiest times to the most difficult times, these families allowed me to be part of those events,” Bernhardt said. “It is very special to me. I am thankful for it.”
He has not yet performed a wedding service for someone whose parents he also married, but he believes it’s only a matter of time.
As cantor, Bernhardt leads the chant during worship services and is the musical director. Though it has been a part-time job for him – he was previously a union representative before retiring a few years ago – Bernhardt spends many hours at the synagogue, celebrating the Sabbath on Friday nights as well as its many other celebrations, including the dedication of the synagogue’s biblical garden on June 7, where he played guitar.
“It’s going to happen,” Bernhardt said. “It is a very special blessing that I can be part of these events. Best part of the job.”
“A lot of generations of our kids grew up with him,” said Val Kaplan, a longtime member of Oseh Shalom, and friend of Bernhardt’s. “Both our daughters had him at their weddings.”
“He’s got staying power,” Kaplan said. “He joined us when we were in our little one room on Briarwood and stuck with us all these years.”
Bernhardt has been with the synagogue through changes in leadership, and helped welcome Rabbis Daria and Josh Jacobs-Velde almost two years ago.
“They do a wonderful job,” Bernhardt said, of the couple, who came to Oseh Shalom in 2017. “This is the first time in their careers they worked with a cantor.”
Bernhardt’s knowledge and history with the congregation have been valuable assets, according to Daria.
“He is very open-minded and open-hearted,” she said. “He is a wonderful, humble human being.”
Born and raised on Long Island, Bernhardt grew up singing in the synagogue. He started playing guitar in the seventh grade and only gave it up once, when he had to have joint replacements in the fingers of his left hand.
“For two year years, I didn’t get the guitar out of the case,” Bernhardt said. Playing, he discovered, was good therapy.
“When you find the things that give you pleasure, you don’t want to let them go,” said Bernhardt, who had a guitar specially designed for him that features Oseh Shalom’s symbol – the star of David with an olive branch - on its head.
His guitar, Kaplan said, is a “wonderful asset. His endless creativity is really part of what makes him such a musician. He brings a lot to the table.”
Though he has shared his musical talent with the members of the Oseh Shalom for 36 years, there have been many requests for Bernhardt to perform a solo concert. When planning his double chai celebration, Bernhardt decided the time was right.
“I didn’t think I had enough material to do a concert, but I made a list and discovered I did,” Bernhardt said, of the concert planned for September. “I’m really looking forward to it. I t will be a lot of fun.”
As to the future, Bernhardt is realistic, though he is not planning to stop any time soon.
“There are several people in the congregation who can step in and both rabbis are blessed to have musical skills, too,” Bernhardt said, “but I’m years away from that kind of move.”
The Year of Charlie continues on Saturday, June 15, at Oseh Ahalom Synagogue, 7515 Olive Branch Way, when Steven Friedman presents “Jews on Broadway.” Dinner is at 6 p.m. Concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18, $12 for children. For more information call 301-498-5151 or go to oseh-shalom.org.