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Voice of beloved cantor is stilled, but songs 'from the heart' endure

For 16 years, Cantor Susan A. Wehle shared joyful times with congregants and helped guide them through their grief.

Wednesday, more than 1,100 people jammed into a memorial service at Temple Beth Am in Amherst to remember her, thank her and wish her farewell.

Speakers described how Wehle approached worship, teaching and visits to the sick and the bereaved with kindness, enthusiasm and unabashed spirituality -- and never with a mere sense of duty.

"Cantors are taught to sing from the diaphragm," said Andy Gold, a rabbinic pastor and longtime friend of Wehle's. "Susan sang from the heart."

Wehle, 55, died in the crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 while returning home from a vacation in Costa Rica. She had been the cantor at Temple Beth Am since 2002 and was previously a cantorial soloist at Amherst's Temple Sinai.

Similar services were held elsewhere Wednesday for at least two other victims of the crash.

Julie Ries, 49, of Clarence, was remembered at a memorial service in St. Mary Catholic Church in Swormville. She was returning to her Clarence home after visiting a friend in New Jersey.

And a memorial service in Queen of Heaven Catholic Church in West Seneca celebrated the life of Mary "Belle" Pettys, who got engaged in December on her 50th birthday and was to be married in June. She was employed by TriZetto, a health care company.

At Temple Beth Am, Wehle's sons, Jonah and Jacob, lit a candle in her memory.

Wehle's prayer shawl and skull cap were neatly draped over the lectern from which she had sung. At the other lectern, her sisters -- Dana Wehle and Eva Friedner -- reminisced about the little girl they called "Carrot Top," who used to straighten her curly hair on an ironing board and test her mother's patience with never-ending energy and exuberance.

Shiri Kester, president of the Beth Am youth group, said Wehle took the nervousness and apprehension out of her Bat Mitzvah training. "She inspired everyone who talked to her," Shiri said. "She was always honest, no matter what."

Deb Kalmus, a high school and college friend, told how Wehle helped her find strength in Judaism while Kalmus was struggling with a family illness.

But Wehle's impact was not limited by denomination.

At the time of her death, she was helping coordinate a summer program for Jewish, Muslim and Christian children.

"The love she had in her heart was universal," said Othman Shibley, who is working on that project as a member of the Niagara Frontier Islamic Society. "Dear brothers and sisters, it is our loss as it is your loss."

The Rev. Gail Lewis, pastor of Williamsville United Methodist Church, said she and Wehle became close friends and mentors after meeting at an interfaith luncheon.

"Although Temple Beth Am was her spiritual tent, the entire world was her congregation," Lewis said. "Not one faith community has been untouched by the loss of Susan Wehle."

Irwin A. Tanenbaum, rabbi of Temple Beth Am, said Wehle's memory and ideals live on:

"We still see Susan in our mind's eye. We see her magnificent full-face smile and bouncing, curly hair. Sing on, dear friend. You will sing on forever."

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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