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The Singing Rabbi

Arnold Fink, 69, leaves lasting legacy in Alexandria's Jewish community.

Alexandria's leading reform rabbi, a man who brought a human touch Jewish life for generations at Beth El Hebrew Congregation on Seminary Road, died last week. Rabbi Arnold Goodfriend Fink, 69, died March 28 of pneumonia -- complications of lung cancer, a condition that was diagnosed 10 months ago.

From 1969 to 2002, he was senior rabbi at Beth El -- presiding over weddings and funerals, providing guidance in good times and in bad, teaching generations of Alexandria Jews about the past and helping them look beyond the horizon of the present. He was an 11th-generation rabbi, receiving ordination at Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati in 1962. His son, Daniel, followed him into the study of Judaism and became a 12th-generation rabbi. He married Barbara Palmer in 1994 and became rabbi emeritus in 2002.

Friends and congregants remember his infectious laugh, his booming voice, his love of children and his limitless grasp of the names and faces. During his tenure as senior rabbi, the congregation grew from 325 families to 850. More than 1,000 mourners attended his funeral — including those who left Beth El for more conservative forms of Judaism. His closest friends recall a deep love of living, and a contagiously optimistic spirit.

"HE LOVED TO SING," said Shirley Church, his secretary for 13 years. "Even if it was a bit off key, that didn't matter. He just kept singing."

But his informal attitude and pleasant demeanor was tempered by an old-fashioned dress code — a rigid adherence to a coat-and-tie standard of formality.

"He was right out of the band box — very well dressed," remembered Dorothy Traub. "If it was a hot day, he might take his jacket off. But he would keep his tie on. He wouldn't even loosen his collar."

Fink's interest in rabbinical studies started during his senior year at Princeton in 1956. That was when he first studied the work of Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher who emphasized emotional values and piety but also the human exchanges of joy and active love.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he spent seven years as a rabbi at Keneseth Israel in suburban Philadelphia before coming to Alexandria.

FINK WAS an activist leader of Beth El, participating in protests in the former Soviet Union and in Washington, D.C. He advocated the cause of civil rights for blacks in the United States and Jews in the Soviet Union. One of his lasting legacies to Alexandria was the creation of Beth El House, a facility that takes homeless women with children out of the public shelter and teaches them vocational, child-rearing and money-management skills.

One of Fink's passions was creating bonds between worshippers of different faiths. He was rabbi-in-residence at Christ Church, chaplain at Inova Alexandria Hospital and lecturer at Virginia Theological Seminary. He was also active in the Call to Community Initiative, an effort to bridge the gap between various religious and ethnic groups in Alexandria, and a former vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis' mid-Atlantic organization. He served two terms as president of the Alexandria Clergy Association.

Joyce Gordon remembers Fink as a man who was fearless in life and encouraged others to allow themselves to appreciate its richness without reserve. She remembers a ropes course he led 12 years ago at Hemlock Overlook that involved a "zip wire," a long cord that led down an embankment over a ravine.

"He was first to get to get to the end," she recalled. "When he was there at the bottom, he urged everybody to give it a try."

RABBIS HAVE many duties, but the one that Rabbi Fink seemed to cherish the most was teaching. He would often deliver complicated lectures without notes, recalling names, dates and place names. During the last few weeks of his life, Beth El honored Fink by naming their new education center after him — an honor that brought great joy to a rabbi that valued education as indispensable to the human experience.

"Rabbi Fink taught me many things," said Sharon Steinberg. "But the thing that he taught me most was how to die."

In his final days, Fink remained an active part of the community at Beth El.

"He considered every breath a gift," said Steinberg. "He found the childhood wonder of appreciating a flower and feeling the breeze against his back."

The Arnold G. Fink Lifelong Learning Center will soon stand in the place where Fink's office once stood — directly on the spot where generations of Alexandria Jews conferred with the rabbi about planning a wedding or organizing a funeral to mourn the loss of a loved one. It's a place that will soon be transformed into a high-tech library for the congregants of Beth El.

He is survived by a wife, a sister and two sons.