Rabbi Cheryl Klein came of age at Congregation Dor Hadash.
The Pittsburgher’s parents helped establish the Reconstructionist synagogue in Squirrel Hill with its 1963 charter. She became a bat mitzvah as a young woman there. And, for 33 years, she served as the cantor for the lay-led congregation, helping to lead services and provide congregants with counsel.
On Oct. 1, Klein, a self-taught cantor who was ordained a rabbi four years ago by the nondenominational Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, will take another step at the congregation, becoming Dor Hadash’s rabbi.
The congregation’s board voted unanimously recently to bring Klein back to Dor Hadash as its rabbi for an eight-month contract, which ends in May, president Donna Coufal said.
Klein had previously notified the board of her intent to leave the lay cantorial position shortly before the Oct. 27, 2018, shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue building where Dor Hadash was then located and holding services. Since the anti-Semitic attack, the deadliest in the U.S. to date, Dor Hadash has moved to Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation in Shadyside.
The need for a stable, guiding presence in light of so much trauma led the board to reach out to Klein for the new position, which dovetails with strategic planning around Dor Hadash’s future, its president said.
“Clearly, we’ve been through a lot of changes — since the events of Oct. 27, since Cheryl stepped down as cantor, and since COVID hit,” said Coufal. “This is sort of a win-win. We’re changing and she’s changing and we both get to try things out. It’s an experimental time.”
“It allows for an examination of the future of the congregation,” said Klein, a lifelong Pittsburgher who now lives in O’Hara Township. “I’m proudly, perhaps, a bridge to what was, what currently is, and what will be.”
Coufal said the congregation will decide in May if it wants to continue with a rabbi, though both Klein and Coufal said services wouldn’t be much different than when Klein was serving as a lay cantor.
“We’ll just see the benefits of partnering with someone with rabbinical knowledge, who can help in those ways,” Coufal said.
“They are not looking for a traditional pulpit rabbi,” said Klein.
Dor Hadash is at a pivotal point in its history. The congregation, one of the oldest Reconstructionist groups that exists in the U.S. today, boasts 150 families or about 200 to 300 members. But those members increasingly are getting older and congregation leadership has been tasked with working to increase membership among younger Jewish families in the area.
That increase in numbers, oddly enough, is happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many families who attend Dor Hadash services via Zoom are being joined by new friends and new family, Klein said.
Klein is excited, she said, by both the possibilities her new role presents and the challenges.
“I do believe in the mission we’ve taken here,” she said. “And I’m happy to breathe new spirit into it.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.