After 33 years providing spiritual leadership to Congregation Dor Hadash as its lay cantor, Rabbi Cheryl Klein is ready to pursue new ways to “serve and preserve Jewish tradition” — a phrase she refers to as her “tagline.”
She is most definitely not retiring.
Klein, who helps lead services at the Reconstructionist congregation that was housed in the Tree of Life synagogue building, announced her plans to “step down from the bimah” in a letter to its membership prior to the massacre.
“After 33 years, I thought perhaps this is an opportunity to explore the rabbinic end of things a little more, with nothing in particular planned,” she said.
Although Klein has been a devoted Jewish educator since she was studying to become a bat mitzvah at Dor Hadash — at the time, she tutored other children to help them prepare for their own b’nai mitzvahs — she is fairly new to the rabbinate. Serving as a “self-taught” cantor for decades, she obtained rabbinic ordination from the nondenominational Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk, an online program, in 2016.
“I always loved being Jewish,” said Klein, whose family was one of those that founded Dor Hadash. “I had a very, very strong identity as a child. My home was very traditional. I loved music. I loved Hebrew. I loved studying Hebrew texts. And I think oftentimes, you gravitate toward those things that you are good at. That was the case with me. It was natural, it came pretty easy to me.”
Klein followed an undergraduate degree in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh with a master’s in teaching. Having an affinity as an educator, she continued working part-time while raising her family and tutoring children in Hebrew, becoming the principal of different religious schools in the Allegheny County area. She eventually took a full-time teaching position at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies, and later became the head of that program, working simultaneously at Dor Hadash.
Dor Hadash is a lay-led congregation and has never had a spiritual leader employed as its rabbi. The congregation, which has maintained a membership roll of about 150 family units over the last 25 years, was founded in 1963. It was one of the earliest affiliates of the Reconstructionist movement.
Now that Klein has obtained rabbinic ordination, she is open to seeing what new opportunities await.
“When you have dedicated more than half of your life to one institution in terms of the service that you provide, in some ways it doesn’t provide the ability to see what else is going on in the rest of the institutionalized Jewish world,” she said. “And I am using that word lightly, ‘institutional,’ because there are many ways today in which Judaism is being practiced, what people are calling ‘beyond the walls’ communities.”
Stepping down from the bimah at Dor Hadash on June 1, she said, is “bittersweet because I have invested so much of my life with the congregation. It’s been my ‘second love affair’ — my first, of course, with my husband, Mark.”
That “second love affair” was nurtured through Klein’s work co-leading services with many different congregants, and having “the opportunity to relate to, know and appreciate all of the goodness that people have in their hearts to be able to give of themselves to make Dor Hadash function well,” she said.
“I feel I have truly been blessed to be a part of a very intellectual, seeking group of people who have open hearts, open minds and open doors,” Klein said. “And it has really been such an honor, a joy and a privilege to serve the congregation for more than three decades.”
The feeling is mutual.
Klein is “beloved by the community,” noted Dor Hadash president Donna Coufal. “She is a very strong person and she is a very creative thinker, and very spiritual.”
Klein has “really straddled an interesting position because we consider ourselves a lay-led congregation and yet in all fairness, Cheryl took tremendous leadership,” Coufal continued. “She speaks from her heart and her wisdom, but she has an amazing presence and that’s her gift, no matter whether she is talking to you over lunch or she is co-leading a service with a member, that presence is always there.”
Klein was out of town on Oct. 27 celebrating her husband’s birthday with family in Philadelphia, but drove back to Pittsburgh the following morning to be with her flock and to speak at the Sunday vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Prior to that event, members of Dor Hadash planned to gather together in the social hall at the East Presbyterian Church. The massacre had resulted in the death of congregant Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, and serious injuries to congregant Dan Leger.
A representative of the church had asked a member of Dor Hadash how many chairs to set up, and was told that about 30 should be sufficient. But when Klein arrived, she saw more than 300 people from her congregation assembled in that room.
Of course she was asked to speak.
“I think at that point I was just looking for divine inspiration,” she recalled. “I had nothing written. It was just whatever words landed in my heart. To this day I can’t even tell you what I said. It was just trying to find the right words at the right time for the right reason. To try to bring some sense of comfort to a room that was thick with pain.”
Coufal remembers Klein walking into the church that Sunday.
“She spoke with such strength, and she cried,” Coufal said. “Cheryl is able to hold all of those emotions at once.”
When Klein arrived at the community-wide vigil at Soldiers and Sailors later that afternoon, again she was surprised to see the enormity of the event and thousands of people in attendance.
“It never dawned on me, the scope of what was to be revealed when I was asked to speak at a vigil,” Klein said. “I hadn’t thought there would be national media and local media. It never even entered my psyche. I just pray I said words that would try to bring a sense of strength and courage to my community.”
The attack on her congregation continues to be “very painful, really painful,” Klein said.
“I never would have imagined — never, in my entire lifetime — that I would spend pretty much the last full year of my relationship with Dor Hadash, at least in a professional capacity, trying to help the congregation to heal from the worst atrocity to ever hit the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.”
As individual members heal at their own pace, the lay leadership of Dor Hadash is interviewing candidates to fill Klein’s role. A leader of High Holiday services for 2019 has already been hired.
“We have a long history, but we also have had a lot of changes as a result of the shooting and what our needs are,” said Coufal. “So we want to work with someone who has the maturity and the sensitivity to deal with what we’ve gone through.
“We have been a nomadic group for many years,” she noted, adding that the congregation’s immediate plan is to stay at Rodef Shalom — where it has been housed since the massacre — for a year.
“As a congregation, we have been dealing with a lot of stuff and we will deal with this, too,” Coufal continued. “And I know I can always reach out to Cheryl.”
As for Klein, her “heart is full of gratitude for having been able to do what I love to do when so many people in this world aren’t given that opportunity,” she said. “I am grateful for the wonderful friendships and relationships that I have been able to make throughout the community on both a professional level and a personal level. Of course, my family is my number one priority, but my position at Dor Hadash has really made my life very whole.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at