Cantor Bernard “Buzzy” Walters was given his nickname at birth — named for his grandmother Bella — but his brimful career path has shown that the nickname is an apt one.
Walters, turning 80 next month, is the cantor of the egalitarian services at the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. Before beginning the job in June 2020, he worked High Holiday services at Congregation Anshe Emeth in Hudson, New York, for 14 years during his so-called “retirement.” He was cantor for Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell for 12 years before that.
A Pittsburgh native, Walters, since beginning cantorial duties at age 16, has served at synagogues across the state, including at Rodef Sholom Synagogue in Johnstown and at synagogues in Washington and Coatesville. He was a cantor at Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Glenside for 27 years, too. Wherever Walters went, he brought his infectious love for music.
“Music brings the congregants to the religion through their heartstrings because music speaks to the heart,” Walters said.
As if teaching Hebrew school and b’nai mitzvah classes and leading services wasn’t enough, for 40 years, Walters was an Advanced Placement English teacher at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in the Colonial School District. He would ask his students and the music teachers there to join him for his annual cantorial concert at the synagogues at which he taught. He started the “Colonial Cantorial Quartet,” playing the tuba alongside a clarinetist, flutist and French horn player.
At one time, when the religious school at BTBJ was waning, Walters found other ways to keep himself busy: “In addition to being there and in public school, I also taught in Beth El of Levittown for four years, ’81-’84, and at Temple Sinai from ’85 to ’90.”
Nimble in his career choices and eager to dig deep into his work, Walters didn’t have trouble adjusting to the changing technologies of the day.
“Since the 21st century, I said, ‘I want to be a 21st-century person,’” Walters said. “I wanted to communicate with my students, with my friends, with my congregants, with everybody. And you can’t communicate without
During the pandemic, when Walters wasn’t preparing to lead High Holiday services, he’d Zoom in to Sunrise of Abington Senior Living Community while he was living in Florida. He’d have the nurse he’d call bring their phone from room to room, and each resident would request a song for Walters to play.
Walters has a YouTube channel with 88 video uploads of him singing different tunes. It includes him singing five different melodies of “Adon Olam.”
Family is at the core of Walter’s love of and career in music.
“My father was a professional musician. He was with the Pittsburgh Symphony — before I was even born — as a violinist, and his sister was a pianist,” he said. “It was a musical family.”
When Walters was 5, he got his first piano, which was hoisted through a bedroom window in the family’s home. Seven years later, he upgraded to a Steinway grand piano, the same piano he plays to this day.
After joining his synagogue Congregation Poale Zedeck’s choir at 9 and leading the High Holiday services as cantor at the Aliquippa JCC at 16, Walters graduated high school to attend the University of Pittsburgh and then Columbia University for a year.
Not wanting to return to Pittsburgh, Walters moved in with his brother, who was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, while Walters completed his master’s at Temple University. He met his wife that same year, and the two were married a year later.
Walters’ brother is also a cantor, though he made a living as a lawyer and a judge. Though he lives in Maryland, and much of their extended family lives in Chicago and Virginia, the two create a Zoom meeting almost every day to play tunes together for their cousins.
“Even when I’m going to Florida on vacation, I still bring a keyboard with me in the car,” Walters said.
In August, the congregation will celebrate the cantor’s birthday at Saturday Shabbat services. He’ll still lead services, of course, as well as leyn that week’s Haftorah.
“I’m very, very happy to be at Shaare Shamayim,” he said. “Especially as I approach the 80th birthday, I’m still handling it and doing so happily.”