Becoming Rabbi Myers

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Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers at a podium
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom at the State Department in Washington D.C. on July 16, 2019. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

By Adam Reinherz

PITTSBURGH — Nestled high in Shadyside is a reconstituted office filled with papers, plaques and presents. The memento-covered space in Rodef Shalom Congregation is a large and crammed area bearing testimony to the singularity of its inhabitant. On the wall is a white poster board with encouraging words written in colorful marker. Beneath the sign are gifts from well-wishers across the world. The paper-laden makeshift desk where Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers sits was formerly a conference table.

While the space works well for now, Myers misses his old office — or more specifically, what was inside it. He misses his books.

Though Myers occasionally returns to the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building to get something, the bulk of his library — which includes works on Jewish thought, classic commentaries on the Torah and file cabinets full of sermons and sheet music — has remained out of reach.

Fortunately, in the coming weeks, nearly 10 months after a gunman entered the Squirrel Hill building on a Saturday morning and killed 11 Jews, a group of volunteers will help Myers pack and transport approximately 200 boxes of books to his relocated setting. It’s an important step forward — and one that needs to happen for pragmatic reasons.

Shabbat mornings require sermons. Weekday minyans need occasional thoughts. There is a weekly post from the rabbi on Tree of Life’s website. Each of these tasks, along with the numerous public remarks he’s delivered since Oct. 27, requires referencing books and papers Myers doesn’t have.

“Everything isn’t on the internet,” he said.

Without easy access, he said, it is difficult to teach, and although Myers has followed a winding path of professional Jewish service, as noted by his dual titles of rabbi and hazzan, teaching is all he has ever wanted to do.

When Myers was 15, the cantor of his congregation died. Before the New Jersey-based position was refilled, Myers was named de facto bar mitzvah tutor. The appointment was logical since the teen was already leading services most Saturday mornings — the Linden shul was also without a rabbi then — so teaching Torah and prayers was just another congregational charge to a capable kid.

As bar mitzvah instructor, Myers relied on past tutelage for guidance. The former cantor taught him that trop, or cantillation, afforded access to parchments and opportunities.

“It’s all about trop because that opens the door for somebody to be able to read Torah, to read any piece of Torah,” said Myers. “If you just memorize maftir, all you can do is chant that maftir and nothing else.”

Eventually, the congregation hired another cantor, but throughout his life Myers remained drawn to the pedagogic enterprise — except for a brief college diversion.

As an undergraduate at Rutgers University, “I was majoring in zoology because I thought I was going to be pre-med — isn’t that what Jewish boys were supposed to do at that time? — but I reached a point after two years of all of those classes, that it’s just not what I wanted,” he said.

Instead, Myers realized education was his calling. “I hadn’t recognized up to that point all of the connected dots,” he said.

Aspiration didn’t entirely match reality, however. Although Myers was experienced in leading junior congregations and informally educating Jewish students, he had never been responsible before for classroom management. That changed when Myers graduated from Rutgers and accepted his first formal post: seventh-grade Hebrew school teacher in Matawan, New Jersey.

Many of those years, which began in Rock Island, Illinois, were marked by positions as a cantor. Singing before a congregation was a chance to interpret liturgy and “try to bring it to the people in a way that simply declaiming the words would not.”

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers holds a diploma
Photo courtesy of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation

He fell in love with the work and continued teaching while he got a degree from the Cantorial School of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Bolstered with a master’s in Jewish education, also from JTS, Myers started running religious schools and committed himself to curricular development at congregations in Massapequa, New York and Ventnor, New Jersey. By the time he arrived at Tree of Life on Aug. 1, 2017, Myers had spent nearly three decades in Jewish education.

The same goes for responsive chanting or sermonizing, he continued. “I think all of these pieces all fit together, and to me that’s what makes a good and interesting service, the different pieces of it, not just one straight thing throughout.”

Elements of the service, like other synagogue responsibilities, afforded opportunities to educate, and Myers relished his role. During his tenure, however, Jewish communal life in the United States changed. Congregations merged, some closed and paid cantorial positions became scant.

“I saw there were challenges ahead for those of us who wanted to serve as professional cantors,” he told the Chronicle two years ago.

Myers enrolled in the Rabbinical Academy (Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, Inc.), an off-campus ordination program designed for midcareer working Jewish professionals.

Although becoming a rabbi had not necessarily been the plan, semicha was “something important to have, to be able to one day provide a way to continue to take care of my family as best as I could,” he previously said.

Myers’ prescience paid off. When his previous congregation ceased employing a cantor, he sought other opportunities. Throughout his interview for Tree of Life’s pulpit, he cast himself as someone who could read Torah, chant prayers, sermonize and deliver a meaningful service to a diverse crowd. Myers was confident in his varying abilities — after all, in educational parlance, the task was no different than differentiating instruction.

“I appreciate that Tree of Life gives me an opportunity to try to shape and craft that type of service, that it can be different things, because people come in with different needs,” he said.

As a recognizable face of unspeakable horror, Myers receives requests from across the country for his guidance, media appearances and event remarks. In turn, he has been on national TV, radio and in print. He has spoken before members of Congress, delivered the invocation at Gov. Wolf’s inauguration and received the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Medal of Valor, all in the backdrop to having eulogized the victims, addressed thousands at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum and welcomed President Trump and others in the immediate days after the shooting.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers speaks at a podium for a Tree of Life vigil
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers speaks at a vigil for the Tree of Life victims at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2018. (Photo by Joshua Franzos)

In the nearly 10 months since Myers was among those safely rescued from the Tree of Life building, he has seen firsthand the dramatic shifting of needs. People come to him with shattered faith, others are searching for connection anew. And like a teacher before his pupils, Myers wants to reach them all. But the classroom keeps expanding.

The frequency and weight of such activities is daunting, but Myers forges on, calling for the end of hate speech and encouraging ahavat chinam, loving people.

“We’re more mindful of words now,” said Myers. “We need to translate them into more deeds. We need to see more good. We need to flood the world with good.”

It can all get exhausting, but Myers has spent a lifetime educating, so whether it is congregants, infrequent guests, first-time listeners or students, Myers understands he has to carry the message forward. The responsibility has made him feel closer to God than ever before, especially when saying the Amidah.

“‘OK, God, what do you need of me today? Give me some guidance. What are the things you need me to say? Help me put the words in the right way.’ I ask that of God regularly,” said Myers.

As for all the publicity, the media attention, Myers stays grounded.

“I’d like to think my parents raised me right, that my tradition guides me correctly and that I have to trust myself that what I think is the right thing to do I do. I think that’s just so important because if you lose faith in yourself you’re going to question everything you do, every moment of every day. I just don’t think that’s healthy or that it’s part of a good healing process to just continue to doubt it.

“I don’t come from that from arrogance but just from deep abiding faith in God, that God is leading me on the right path. There’s some reason God wanted me to be in Pittsburgh. I’d never been in Pittsburgh. I’m an East Coaster,” he said.

The season of retrospection is near, as both the High Holidays and the one-year anniversary of the shooting approach. Before then, Myers should get his books back, but he knows the perfect formula for learning to live and teach others after Oct. 27 is not waiting in a box for him.

“There is nothing that can prepare you for massacre,” he said.

“There are no classes you can take on what to do. There were no rabbis I could call on the phone to ask what they did. This is just my way of saying that I have no doubt that I’ve made mistakes along the way, because I’m human. I’ve probably said things I shouldn’t have said, done things I shouldn’t have done. All I hope is that at the end, with whatever future story may be told, that the good I’ve done will hopefully outweigh any errors that I made of commission or omission, and that’s all I can hope for. I’ve tried my best.”

This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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