Cantor Toby Glaser brings a new song to Rodef Shalom
Finding the right noteReform congregation hires first full-time cantor

Cantor Toby Glaser brings a new song to Rodef Shalom

“I like this idea that we sing the soul into existence every morning."

Toby Glaser is Rodef Shalom Congregation’s first full-time cantor. He’s excited to be in Pittsburgh and the possibilities that exist in his new role.

“Obviously, I will have a lot of involvement in the music, but Rabbi [Sharyn] Henry is the only full-time rabbi, so I imagine there will be a huge amount of pastoral care,” he said. “My background is in adult programming, and they haven’t mentioned that yet, but I would love to do some adult programming and young adult groups.”

Glaser, 35, is a native of Melbourne, Australia, who spent time in both New York and San Francisco before accepting the cantorial role at the Reform congregation in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

Glaser served at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco after graduating from Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music. He spent four years at the New York school and one year studying in Jerusalem, where his landlord was a familiar name to most Jewish Pittsburghers: Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s community scholar.

Glaser said the connection was happenstance. Schiff was in Melbourne and met Glaser, who said he was moving to Jerusalem. The rabbi asked if he needed a place to stay and Glaser took him up on the offer.

“He hosted me for a few Shabbat dinners,” Glaser said. “He’s a very learned man.”

Glaser’s parents immigrated to Australia from Europe; his grandparents were all Holocaust survivors. His household was mostly secular and he credits music for starting him on his path to deeper spiritual engagement.

In high school, Glaser played drums in various jazz and rock bands, as well as dabbling on the saxophone and clarinet. He was awarded a choral scholarship in high school that included free singing lessons. When he was in college, he sang with a few opera companies and conducted a children’s choir.

“My singing teacher also taught the cantor of the local Reform synagogue. I started working there on the side and found it very fulfilling,” he said.

During this period, Glaser’s father died. He received support from the local Jewish community.

“I discovered what it meant to have a Jewish communal home,” he remembered.

Glaser next went to Israel on Birthright before a trip to New York City. While in Jerusalem, he visited the Hebrew Union College and met its director, who was in from New York. He urged Glaser to apply to the school since he would be in the States. The future cantor took him up on the offer and was accepted into the school.

There was still a small amount of doubt in his mind, though, and, at the last minute, Glaser decided to take a year off to see if he was still interested. During his gap year, Glaser interned with a rabbi in Melbourne, which only deepened his desire to become a cantor.

“I loved the work, loved the day-to-day,” he said. “I helped plan the Purim carnival and worked with the kids doing Torah study. From there, I took the plunge and went to cantorial school.”

Glaser said that, for him, music is intrinsically tied to Judaism, calling it an “integral part of Jewish prayer.”
As an example, he pointed to the Elohai N’shamah prayer.

“Judaism sees the soul entering the body every morning,” he said. “I like this idea that we sing the soul into existence every morning. I think sharing that kind of breath energy with other people, singing the same melodies and syncing up is really powerful and a part of Jewish worship.”

Given his secular background, Glaser said he’s able to connect easily with conversion students and those who didn’t have the typical Jewish summer camp experience.

“I had that sort of ‘What does Judaism mean to me?’ and ‘What does a relationship with God mean to me?’ I think that’s something conversion students really struggle with, especially if their partner is Jewish and it’s important for them to practice their faith. What Judaism can mean in their lives is something I really relate to,” he said.”

As for his musical direction, Glaser said he feels free to assimilate music from across the entire connection, pointing out that for decades, a lot of the music used in services was influenced by Debbie Friedman and similar artists. Their music, he said, was a reaction to the sort of static organ-led music formerly associated with the Reform movement.

“I think we can use whatever we want,” he said. “I do use traditional melodies and I use contemporary stuff. There’s a lot of exciting stuff like Joey Weisenberg, which is based on traditional modal music, which I think is really exciting. The real job of the cantor today is to be like a DJ. Everyone has their opinion about what they like to use and what they don’t like to use.”

Glaser will not only be leading the music during Shabbat and holiday services, but he has also started practices with the congregation’s choir. As the congregation’s first full-time ordained cantor — Rodef Shalom previously employed cantorial soloists — he will also assist with b’nai mitzvah training.

He’s also starting to think beyond the synagogue’s walls, as well.

“I would love to collaborate with other cantors in Pittsburgh and other musicians and do a concert series at some point,” he said. “It’s exciting because it’s a new template and we can really make what we want of it.”

When he’s not thinking about spiritual and liturgical music, Glaser has another interest that occupies his time.

“I have a real passion for languages,” he said. “I did Yiddish summer school and love Yiddish language and culture. I try to learn art and folk songs. It’s a huge tradition that’s been sort of swept under the rug.”

He said that Melbourne has a large Yiddish community which allowed him to perform at a Yiddish cabaret during a vacation from cantorial school.

“It’s definitely interesting stuff,” he said.

Glaser was welcomed by Rodef Shalom at Shabbat services on July 7 and 8. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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