Fresh off the High Holidays, Rabbi Emily Meyer has a list of hopes. Along with bringing more people to services, the South Hills resident and visiting rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom wants to increase Hebrew proficiency.
For years, Meyer has worked on both.
Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2019 with her family, she served as rabbi of Bet Chaverim in Des Moines, Washington, for five years.
The West Coast congregation, which consisted of approximately 50 families, was filled with “wonderful people who cared deeply about being Jewish,” she said.
Meyer’s responsibilities at Bet Chaverim included leading prayers, partnering with musicians and working alongside local faith leaders — the congregation shares space with a Unitarian Church.
“It was a nice being part of the broader community,” she said.
Finding one’s place feels good, but it’s also central to Judaism, she explained.
“I think that Judaism offers so many wonderful things to the world — we have this strong sense of tikkun olam; we have a strong sense of history and learning from our story, adding our own voice to it. But I think the most important piece of all of this is belonging,” she said. “We have to make sure that everybody who comes into our community knows that — not just feels it — but knows that they belong there, and that they matter, they’re important, their voice matters, their presence matters, they’re counted on. All of those things.”
For months, Meyer has worked to foster that sentiment at Ohav Shalom.
She led Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the congregation, and has been a visiting rabbi there since January, she said.
Helming the Allison Park pulpit has been “wonderful,” she added. “One of the things that I like about being a rabbi is that I’m here to help when our community needs it.”
Meyer deeply understands the responsibility of the rabbinate. She received ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, served as a congregational leader and taught at Jewish day schools, religious schools and summer camp. Her husband is Rabbi Aaron Meyer of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
“I spent the last few High Holidays being a supportive partner — which has been wonderful — being a supportive parent to my children, which has also been really rewarding to get to see the holidays through their eyes.” Still, she continued, “it was fun to get back into the game. It was fun to write sermons again and to share my voice with that community.”
One of her primary messages is “belonging,” but as she explained, there’s a linguistic barrier that prevents many people from achieving that status.
For example, synagogues are filled with Hebrew letters.
“If you don’t know what those letters are it can feel a little bit overwhelming, and maybe embarrassing or alienating,” she said.
Years ago, Meyer sought to remedy this by promoting greater access to Hebrew.
She created Doodly Jew on Facebook and used instructional videos to teach about the Aleph-Bet.
The project is on hiatus, but Meyer is still passionate about providing people with “touch points” for Hebrew letters.
For now, she’s focused on putting people in the pews and facilitating new connections to Jewish life.
“There are lots of different ways to be involved in the Jewish community, and I hope that people who haven’t yet found a home just learn about all of the options that are out there.”
Meyer said one of Pittsburgh’s strengths — along with its great museums — is its bevy of shuls.
Across the region are spaces with new and changing leadership, and it behooves people to know that “they’re welcome in congregations even if they haven’t been there for a few years,” she said.
One of Judaism’s “gifts,” she continued, is its commitment to evolution.
“When you walk into a synagogue, it’s never going to be like it was when you were younger. Every year we hope to grow and change — just like individuals do on the High Holidays,” she said.
People should be open to these changes and “not write off participation because of what it used to be like,” she continued. “We have to learn and grow and change.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.