When Saul Fink stands before the congregation on yom tov, he davens with kavanah (intention).
“I am aware that I am praying to ha-Shem for the congregation and the Jewish people as a whole,” he says.
And when Canada’s oldest cantor once again leads Shacharit and Mincha services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the Chavurat Tefila Synagogue in Winnipeg this year – for the 17th year in a row – the 94-year-old will get added nachas by davening for the second year in a row with his grandson, Avi Fink-Posen (who will be leading Musaf and Neilah).
“Avi has a beautiful voice,” says the proud zayde.
As a cantor, Fink was a relatively late bloomer. While growing up in southeastern Poland, Fink attend synagogue regularly with his father. But life was disrupted by the Holocaust.
The Fink family turned out to be fortunate, as the Russians deported them to Siberia (along with many others in the Russian zone in the first couple of years of the war), which ended up saving their lives. Fink, his parents and three sisters all survived – all three siblings are in their 90s and still living independently – and came to Winnipeg in 1948.
For much of his adult life, Fink operated a grocery store in partnership with his brother-in-law, Oscar Novak. It was about the time that they sold the business in 1984 that Fink became not only a cantor, but also a Torah reader and shochet – all out of necessity.
“The hazzan at the B’nay Abraham Synagogue had just quit,” he says. “I had been going to shul to say Kaddish for my father. The rabbi (Peretz Weizman) and the president asked me if I could come to shul on Shabbats to help out.”
When they asked him to lead holiday services, he remembers being unsure of whether he could do it. “I went to ask my uncle, Moshe Langsan, his opinion. He knew the nigunim. He listened to my davening and said that I was wonderful,” said Fink.
Rabbi Weizman also encouraged his new cantor to learn to read Torah, which he did, with the help of the rabbi. Around the same time, the community’s shochet quit and moved to Toronto.
“My brother-in-law, Oscar, suggested to the rabbi that I might be a suitable replacement,” Fink recalls. “In the grocery store, we sold a lot of meat.”
Fink remembers being really disturbed by the scene at the slaughterhouse the first time he went there with Rabbi Weizman. He wasn’t sure that he wanted to go back.
“Rabbi Weizman encouraged me to come back with him and help out,” he says. “After three or four days, I was used to it.”
Fink and his partner, the late Solomon Benarroch, worked as the community’s shochetim for 20 years – generally going out one day a week – until the community stopped shechitah about 15 years ago.
Fink moved to the Chavurat Tefila in 2002, after the B’nay Abraham merged with the two Conservative congregations in north Winnipeg to form Congregation Etz Chayim. (Rabbi Weizman also came to the Chavurat Tefila on Shabbats, before moving to Toronto 10 years ago.)
For a number of years, Fink was also one of the regular Torah readers on Shabbat at the small congregation. Nine years ago, he and Rochelle Fink – his wife of 64 years – sold their north Winnipeg home and moved into a condo in south Winnipeg. Now, during the year, he attends services at the Lubavitch centre in south Winnipeg, where he also regularly leads services. (For yom tov, the couple stays at Fink’s sister’s north Winnipeg condo.)
The couple keeps fit by exercising 60-90 minutes a day at the Rady Jewish Community Centre. After the workout, Fink goes for a swim and a shvitz.
As much as he enjoys davening, his greatest pleasure, he says, are his eight grandchildren.