It’s quite a distance from Shushan to Pittsburgh, but that was the starting point of the decades-long journey for a local, newly invested cantor.
This Shushan, however, is a hamlet in upstate New York, not a city in ancient Persia, and it’s the birthplace of Michelle Gray-Schaffer, or Cantor Michal as she is known to her congregants.
Gray-Schaffer is the new cantor and spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler. She replaces Cantor Gary Gelender, who left over a year ago.
A Syracuse University graduate, with a degree in fashion design and theater costume design, Gray-Schaffer and her husband, Eric, moved to Pittsburgh in 1980 to further Eric’s law career. Her husband eventually became president of Rodef Shalom’s junior congregation, and she became active with it as well.
Gray-Schaffer is a Jew-by-choice, though she did not convert until after she was married. In the early 1990s, she began studying and taking Hebrew classes at Rodef Shalom.
“The more I studied, the more I loved Judaism. I came to the realization that I had a Jewish soul and I had always been a Jew; I just didn’t know it.”
By the time she converted 24 years ago, she had already been living as a Jew for quite a while.
Although she had experience singing in choirs and in musical theater, and studied operetta and classical voice, Gray-Schaffer’s Jewish musical education came later. After she converted, she re-started Rodef Shalom’s volunteer choir. By the late 1990s, when the congregation was looking for a cantor, they asked her to fill in. “The more I did this, the more I loved it,” she says. “It just fit all of my skills.”
Becoming invested as a cantor was the natural next step for Gray-Schaffer. Although the process took nine years, including commuting to New York to complete her certification program and studying with Cantor Richard Berlin of Parkway Jewish Center, she became western Pennsylvania’s first fully invested Reform cantor in September 2009.
She and her husband are the parents of three grown children: Abigail, Ethan and Gregory. She says her family has supported her every step of the way.
Gray-Schaffer is enthused about her new role with B’nai Abraham. “I know that the board really wants me to bring life back into the synagogue and to reach out to the community,” she added.
In that vein, she plans to represent B’nai Abraham in a Butler interfaith religious group as well as a Christians for Israel support group that is forming in the area.
“She’s got a beautiful voice,” said Phil Terman, who, along with his wife, is co-president of the congregation. “She’s very outgoing, and connects with congregants on an individual level. She’s extraordinarily enthusiastic, and she’s been warmly received.”
Terman said he is enthused about how the children in the congregation have already connected with her.
Gray-Schaffer plans to grow the 70-plus family congregation, both musically and spiritually.
“I want to form a little congregational band with the religious school,” she said. “It tends to be the kids who play instruments, so I want to involve them in some way.”
She already has four congregants signed up for a conversion class, and she is offering a program called “The December Dilemma.” “It’s a program and discussion about helping interfaith families deal with the proximity of Christmas to Chanuka and deciding how to celebrate each holiday.”
“I really love every aspect of this job. I love singing, I love teaching kids, I love writing sermons. I like being able to be creative. I love helping people through life cycle events,” she says.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)