A new generation of Jewish spiritual leaders take their turn at Pittsburgh’s bimahs
“Inclusion,” he said, “remains a core value.”
Generational change is taking place within many of Pittsburgh’s congregations. Several rabbis who shepherded the community for the last three decades recently retired and took with them some of the priorities of the 20th century.
A new generation of rabbis and cantors is now leading these congregations. Their pulpits reflect the contemporary challenges and opportunities in the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
Assimilation and contraction
While assimilation and interfaith marriage were often the clarion call that 20th-century Jewish spiritual leaders addressed, the 21st century is cueing other concerns, like shrinking affiliation and how to fully embrace the diversity reflected in the pews.
“Demographics have shifted pretty quickly,” Temple Sinai Rabbi Daniel Fellman noted. “Where the last generation got to ride a wave of growth, this generation is confronting contraction.”
Fellman joined the Squirrel Hill Reform congregation in 2021, succeeding Rabbi Jamie Gibson, who led Temple Sinai for more than 30 years. Fellman sees a need to identify core values and prioritize which ones should be preserved as the Jewish community looks to the future.
“That becomes the driving force,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for creative thinking and looking at new ways of doing things. We must recognize that the path that got us here isn’t the one we can take forward.”
Rabbi Aaron Meyer was hired in 2019 to replace Rabbi Mark Mahler at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, who retired after nearly four decades with the congregation. Meyer became the senior rabbi less than a year before COVID-19 forced the temporary closure of all Jewish institutions in the city.
He said assimilation should no longer be a concern.
“I think that there is no question that assimilation is part of the Jewish experience, and we would do well to quit arguing about whether it has happened, but to begin embracing the ways it is not only good for Jews who practice Judaism but, I would argue, good for Judaism itself,” Meyer said. “I think the next generation of Jewish spiritual leaders would be well advised to strike a better balance between serving Jewish tradition and serving the Jews who practice it.”
Rabbi Mark Goodman was hired last year as the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom and has worked for the Conservative congregation in Squirrel Hill since 2021, when he assumed the role of interim director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah.
“Conservative synagogues are either getting smaller or closing,” Goodman said, adding that the challenges go beyond shrinking membership.
“We are producing a much smaller number of rabbis,” he said. “People don’t want to become Conservative rabbis from the two, three, four major seminaries worldwide.”
And while the national trend is one of contraction, Goodman said his focus is on individual relationships.
“I can only work as a rabbi one person at a time, one interaction at a time, one Shabbat at a time, one sermon at a time,” he said.
With those individual relationships come concern for the entirety of the Jewish people, he said, not simply for those who are part of the Conservative movement.
“I identify as a Conservative Jew. I’m really proud of it. I really love what my movement does,” he said before adding, “but I know it’s not for everyone. and I’m totally OK with that.”
Shaare Torah Rabbi Yitzi Genack has served the Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill for about nine months. Rather than worry about issues like the contraction of membership at various Jewish institutions, he instead focuses on engagement at all levels, he said.
“We’re trying to develop programs that increase people’s engagement in classes, shiurim and davening that are open to everyone,” he said. “They’re purposely set up to elevate the religious experience. No matter where you are, you can have the opportunity to grow in your Judaism, your Torah study and in your tefillah.”
The Jewish community is broad
As the Jewish community assimilated into the greater American society, fears over interfaith marriage came to dominate the second half of the 20th century. That concern has abated among some non-Orthodox clergy.
The Jewish community, Fellman said, is broad and includes people born Jewish, people who choose Judaism and people who are Jewish-adjacent.
“Inclusion,” he said, “remains a core value.”
Fellman said that interfaith marriage isn’t the issue that it was a generation ago because the Jewish community has figured out how to integrate those choosing Judaism, either formally or informally.
“It’s just become part of us,” he said.
To be able to serve today’s Jewish community, Meyer said, means honoring a person’s whole self and the families who gave rise to their Jewish identity.
“Those families are more diverse than at any point in Judaism’s past,” he said. “I worry that to maintain an exclusivity from the pulpit would be to push away those that matter most.”
Meyer said that includes those participating in the lives of young people celebrating b’nai mitzvah or other life cycle events.
It also includes “those who are casting their lot with the synagogue as their spiritual home, who share in the values of the synagogue if not yet that particularistic expression of theology,” Meyer said.
Sing a new song
Cantor Toby Glaser was recently hired by Rodef Shalom Congregation. He will begin serving the Reform Shadyside congregation on July 1. Until then, he is in his native Melbourne, Australia.
Glaser said that the trajectory of Jewish music in America was based on organs and choirs and remained fairly stagnant until the 1970s when Debbie Friedman’s folk styling based on guitar arrangements of traditional songs and melodies gained traction.
Reform congregations, he said, are now in a “post-modern era,” combing traditional Reform music with music coming out of Israel and new music found in world Jewry.
“We don’t have aversion to traditional chant music that some song leaders might, and we also embrace the song leader tradition,” Glaser said. “I think for myself there’s a new kind of eclecticism in the way I approach Jewish music and planning services and really trying to have something for everyone.”
Glaser’s background is opera, but he plays a lot of percussion and uses a lot of drums to help create a modern sound, he said.
Kalix Jacobson, who uses the pronoun they, will join Temple Emanuel in July as the congregation’s new cantor. They were ordained in May at Hebrew Union College among a class that included the first three nonbinary or transgender cantors to be ordained in any denomination of Judaism.
Jacobson said that cantors of their generation are writing more original music to be used by the community.
“I’ll get a lot of suggestions — ‘I have this friend that has this piece, can you arrange it? Can I send it to you?’” Jacobson said. “We’re not just sticking to Klepper and Friedman and Isaacson. There are a lot more composers in the pool.”
Cantor David Reinwald joined Temple Sinai about a year ago. He views himself as “musically eclectic,” he said, and strives to be as contemporary as possible while still building on tradition.
“We’re not walking away from what got us here musically and the historical foundation,” he said. “I know there are a lot of new composers and colleagues of mine that are writing music that responds to liturgical changes in the way that we’re thinking about gender and about the divine and about language.” PJC
This is the first in a two-part series examining a generational change in the leadership of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. The second part will delve deeper into issues of gender and identity and how the pandemic has influenced Judaism.
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]