“He certainly left a void,” said Ray Franklin regarding his father-in-law, the late Cantor Alvin Donald. “If you’re lucky in this world, you leave something, and Al’s was larger than others.”
Donald died April 13 at 92 from complications of the coronavirus. He leaves behind a lasting legacy, from his military service, to his religious service, to his life as a family man.
During World War II, Donald served in the U.S. Navy, and was assigned to Bainbridge Naval Station. According to Franklin, he liked to joke “that his job was to keep U-boats out of Chesapeake Bay.”
After the war, Donald worked as “an insurance salesman, and a salesman for a furniture company,” Franklin said. “It was an old-fashioned occupation. He had a route, and he would carry clothing and appliances, and service his clients throughout rural Maryland.”
However it is for his services as a cantor that many fondly remember Donald. After participating in Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s choir in the 1950s and ‘60s, he served for 29 years as the cantor of Temple Emanuel in Randallstown, sharing religious leadership with Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl.
“He had a beautiful baritone voice, ever since childhood,” said Donald’s daughter, Joyce Axelman.
Buchdahl remarked that “Temple Emanuel was fortunate to have wonderful organists/musicians to enhance the worship experience, in particular David Dasch and the late Verle Larson. The combination of their aesthetic sense and Alvin Donald’s voice made Shabbat and Yom Tov occasions for rejoicing.”
In addition to his vocal work, Axelman estimates that Donald performed some 5,000 marriage ceremonies, and was particularly well known for his stance on the performance of interfaith wedding ceremonies. “He was a progressive Jewish leader, who would marry interfaith couples when no one else would, between here and Washington,” Axelman said.
“He was the most nonjudgmental person I have ever met,” Franklin said. “He was the alternative for people in the Baltimore-Washington area who kept their faith but wanted to marry outside of it.”
Aside from his religious service, Donald’s biggest priority was his family. “His life revolved around his family, his children, and grandchildren,” Franklin said. “The biggest pleasure in his life was going out to eat with them, which was a regular occurrence.”
“He married my mother when I was 16, and I was thrilled,” Axelman said. “I guess he always stuck up for me whenever I did something wrong.”
In one moment that fused his religious service with his family life, Donald performed the wedding of his granddaughter Stacey Holland. “He was 90 years old when he performed at this wedding,” Axelman said. “When he started to sing, people were amazed at the voice that came out of this 90-year-old body.”
While illness would eventually take him, it did not do so without a fight. “Anecdotally, Al was a survivor,” Franklin said. “He had been treated for two kinds of cancer, heart disease, back problems, and other infirmities, so a big part of his life was going to doctors. But it was always an opportunity for him to go out. The doctor’s visit would normally be followed by a big lunch at a restaurant, which would turn into an all-day affair.”
Buchdahl summed up Donald’s legacy by referring to him as “a delightful human being with a gorgeous voice. His aim in life was to make people happy. He succeeded.”
In addition to son-in-law Ray Franklin and daughter Joyce Axelman, Donald is survived by his wife Geraldine “Geri” Abarbanel Axelman; children Mark Donald (Sharon) and Karen (Donald) Hesse (Randy); grandchildren Kate Hesse and Rachel (Hesse) Johnson (Matt), Stacey and Jake Holland, and Briana (Donald) Boston (Daniel); and great-grandchildren Asher, Calder, and Falkner Boston and Aidan Johnson.