Congregation B’nai Abraham looks to future
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TransitionLong-time leader plans for her next act

Congregation B’nai Abraham looks to future

Spiritual leader Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer announces retirement

Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer singing Psalm 150 at the bar mitzvah of Josh Miller, seated in the background.  (Photo by David Miller)
Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer singing Psalm 150 at the bar mitzvah of Josh Miller, seated in the background. (Photo by David Miller)

Congregation B’nai Abraham isn’t yet planning for its final act.

Even as its longtime spiritual leader, Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, announced she will retire at the end of June — and demographic trends aren’t pointing in favor of rural congregations like B’nai Abraham — the congregation is looking to the future.

Located approximately 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, the Butler congregation is the only surviving synagogue between Cranberry Township and Erie. And while membership has waxed and waned since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century, when 25 Jewish families decided to create a religious school and place of worship, it has remained a vital link across what poet and congregation member Philip Terman affectionally calls “the true diaspora.”

Terman, who grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, said B’nai Abraham provides a connection to Judaism in a rural area that doesn’t have its own Jewish Community Center or Jewish Federation.

“As a writer and poet, it brings me so much inspiration,” he said.

Gray-Schaffer has been responsible for much of that inspiration during her 13 years at the congregation. The Squirrel Hill resident travels to the synagogue several times a week and on Shabbat.

A midlife change of career — and an ad in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle — led her to B’nai Abraham.

After earning a certificate from Hebrew Union College’s Debbie Friedman’s School of Sacred Music, Gray-Schaffer did chaplaincy work and, as a member of Rodef Shalom Congregation, served on a search committee that unsuccessfully sought a new cantor.

“The rabbi at the time, Mark Staitman, kind of turned to me and said, ‘Could you do the things that a cantor does?’” Gray-Schaffer recalled. “And I said I ‘I will try.’ I found that those things were such a good match for me that I really felt that I wanted to pursue the cantorate because I felt it was what I was meant to do,” she said.

The on-ramp to become a spiritual leader was a long one for Gray-Schaffer, who converted to Judaism after marrying her husband, Eric, nearly 40 years ago. The couple moved to Pittsburgh in the 1980s. She is a Syracuse University graduate with a degree in fashion design and theater costume design. She sang in choirs and performed in musical theater, studied operetta and classical voice, and restarted Rodef Shalom’s volunteer choir.

Now, she readies for another act: retirement, social justice work and hobbies that include travel, gardening and maybe even birding. She also plans to spend more time at her Charlottesville, Virginia, home, something she looks forward to during winter months and inclement weather.

Reflecting, she said that she and B’nai Abraham were an excellent pairing.

“We’ve been a good fit for each other,” Gray-Schaffer said. “I love the congregation dearly.”

Longtime B’nai Abraham member Larry Berg said the cantor was a good fit for the congregation for a few reasons.

“She’s from the region, and there’s something different about this part of the country than anywhere else,” he said. “She’s remarkable. She became part of the Butler community.”

Gray-Schaffer, Berg said, worked to build a sense of community with other, non-Jewish organizations in the area.

“She became part of the Butler Country Ministerial Association and some wonderful things happened,” he said.

Choking up at the memory, Berg recalled when 700 people came to B’nai Abraham after the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “There were more people than we ever had. They were lined up outside looking through windows.”

B’nai Abraham, Berg explained, beat the odds and outlasted many of the other synagogues located on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. He attributes that to an endowment fund started by the families of Jewish merchants who came to Butler because Pittsburgh’s industrial giants wouldn’t hire Jews to work in mills or the railroads.

“If it wasn’t for that, we’d be in the same boat as all those synagogues that have already closed,” he said.

Gray-Schaffer sees the opportunity for growth ahead.

“We’ve had a kind of renaissance in the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve gotten new members. That being said, we’re a very small synagogue, so one or two new members is a big deal to us, but it seems that people are moving back to Butler. We’re getting Slippery Rock students. It’s skewing a little young.”

Terman said B’nai Abraham is also seeing the return of some congregants.

“Folks that used to come and tapered off are coming back,” he said. “I think they’ve been coming back because of the cantor. … They’re reigniting their interest.”

Congregation President Christine Hood said that people are still willing to drive 40 minutes or more to attend services, especially on High Holidays.

“We have a lot of loyal people who attend even though it’s a distance,” she said.

The congregation remains optimistic for the future, she said, investing in the building and ensuring the sanctuary and the social hall are up to standard.

“We just put in new ductwork,” she said. “These are all symbols that we’re ongoing.”

The congregation is also beginning to ponder life without the spiritual leader who has been an integral part of its existence for more than a decade.

A search has begun for the next person to take the bimah.

“There are a lot of options,” Terman said. “We have a lot of deep and capable folks in our congregation, as well.”

For the cantor, managing her transition has just begun.

“I don’t think I’ve been processing the emotional part of it,” she said. “I know it’s going to be very, very hard. They will always be in my heart.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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