Those enchanted by the uplifting spiritual sound of Molly May’s voice will need to head south to hear Rodef Shalom Congregation’s longtime cantorial soloist and choir director. After nearly a decade serving the Shadyside congregation, May is moving to Durham, North Carolina, next week.
Given her children’s ages and family health concerns, it’s a good time to relocate, May said.
Along with wishing her well, May’s colleagues praised the Jewish professional for her work at Rodef Shalom, HaZamir Pittsburgh, the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra and her commitment to arrangement and instrumentalism throughout the city.
May’s musical contributions are well known throughout the area, but before ever ascending the pulpit, leading a multitude of singers or playing double bass, the Point Breeze native pursued undergraduate and graduate degrees in music pedagogy from the University of Michigan and Rutgers University, and taught orchestra and band for six years in New Jersey before coming back to Pittsburgh.
Despite returning to her regional roots with a wealth of musical knowledge, May’s career climb wasn’t predictable, she said. When one son was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and another son was just an infant, she and her husband, Chuck, realized they “needed additional family support.”
Once cancer treatment concluded, May’s mother Linda Doernberg touted the benefits of the Rodef Shalom Family Center Preschool.
She said the school was a “wonderful play-based center where kids learn in developmentally appropriate ways, sing great songs and make great friends,” May said.
Months after enrolling her son David, May was asked if she wanted to teach music at Rodef Shalom’s religious school. She agreed — but just before Thanksgiving 2011 she began a new relationship with the congregation.
It was just before the start of the holiday weekend, and there were no one skilled singers available during services, said Don Megahan, Rodef Shalom’s music director and organist. “Rabbi Henry said there is a parent in the preschool who is Jewish and she sings, and I said, ‘Go get her,’” he recalled.
May accepted Rodef Shalom’s offer and throughout the next 18 months returned to the Shadyside bima when requested.
There was a stable of other soloists, May said, but as “people phased out of the rotation, I phased in.”
During that period, May was still seeking work in her “first career,” teaching orchestra, but despite some long-term substitute positions “nothing really panned out,” she said. “I realized that what I was supposed to do was serve the Jewish community with my musicianship.”
May’s self-awareness forever impacted the congregation, Megahan said. “Molly just unassumingly stepped into our lives, and I had no idea that our relationship would become what it is.”
Week after week, Megahan and May partnered on maximizing the musical experience of synagogue-goers.
“Many people are content with simply playing or singing what is on the page, but to me, the magic in music happens when you give life to what it is in front of you,” he said. “It’s about communication, intention, meaning, and that doesn’t happen naturally with every musician.”
Megahan called his work with May a “liturgical dance.”
“When you dance with someone, you become as one, not two different people,” he said. “You move with and for each other, and it’s a dance Molly and I fell comfortably into.”
May became deeply involved with the congregation in other ways, too.
In January 2015, she started Rodef Shira, an all-volunteer choir. She said the group was a source of pride. She noted how the choir improves knowledge of Jewish texts, and that several choir members eventually became Rodef Shalom lay leaders.
“Molly has raised the quality and appreciation for music and liturgy,” Barb Feige, Rodef Shalom’s interim executive director, said. “She is so incredibly talented both vocally and — I don’t know how many instruments she plays — anything with strings. She’s like the whole package.”
Henry agreed, saying May has many “extraordinary qualities.” In addition to being a “gifted musician as well as a reliable, steadfast and delightful partner on our worship team, she is also deeply committed to the Jewish community, to vibrant Jewish life and to Yiddishkeit.”
May began sharing her love of Jewish music and education with a new group six years ago as director of the Pittsburgh chapter of HaZamir. While working at Rodef Shalom enabled her to grow a local base, HaZamir offered national and international benefits. Along with creating new contacts in the world of Jewish music, directing HaZamir allowed May to partner with diverse Jewish youth, she said. “HaZamir is not a denominational organization. It’s pluralistic, it’s inclusive and helps teens solidify their Jewish identity and build strong connections to Israel.”
May said she enjoyed bringing together kids from a variety of Jewish backgrounds and watching how children “who don’t do a lot of Jewish things at home are connected with kids who are shomer Shabbos” all the while singing the same music, celebrating Shabbat and performing as one “on a big New York City stage.”
Trading Pittsburgh for Durham isn’t necessarily easy, May said, but there will be some constants. Her husband will keep his job, and she will continue her hybrid studies at the cantorial program at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, New York.
May still has about three years left before graduating, she said, and isn’t certain whether she will want to return to a synagogue or rely on upcoming clinical pastoral classwork and possibly work in a hospital after receiving ordination. What she knows for sure is that upon relocating she’ll be spending countless hours at baseball fields — a practice she’s grown quite familiar with. For years, May has been a staple at Stan Lederman Field in Frick Park and its neighboring concession stand.
“I’ve probably purchased about 200 Diet Dr. Peppers. It’s my second-favorite soda,” she said. “My favorite is Diet Mountain Dew, but they don’t sell them there.”
For now, caffeinated beverage selections at Little League fields are far from thought. May is eager to see her three sons — ages 14, 12 and 10 — succeed in new surroundings both on the field and off. Change isn’t necessarily easy, but between music, baseball and Durham’s vast cultural amenities, there’s a lot to be excited about, she said.
“I am proud to have given so much to this community — this community where I grew up — and I will miss it very much but I am looking forward to new opportunities,” she said. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.