After serving as the spiritual leader of the Parkway Jewish Center near Monroeville for almost 10 years, Cantor Rick Berlin has announced his plans to retire following the high holidays later this year.
Berlin cited cardiovascular issues as the impetus for his upcoming retirement.
“My intention is to remain until after the high holidays, but that could vary depending on my health,” he said. “I have hit a point where God is telling me, ‘you better think of some other things.’ ”
PJC is a small congregation — about 85 member families — but under the leadership of Berlin, it has remained strong and active.
Attendance at Friday night and Saturday morning services has remained solid, according to Berlin, due to a willingness on the part of the congregants to try new things, such as earlier start times for the services in the summer.
Adaptability has been key in PJC’s thriving, Berlin said, noting that working together with other area congregations has helped strengthen his own.
“We formed a group [including Temple David of Monroeville, Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, and Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg] in which we worked together,” Berlin said. “We join together for Selichot, and for joint educational projects.”
PJC also combined its religious school with Temple David several years ago on Berlin’s watch, when the number of PJC students had dipped to around six.
“That helped us make sure our kids were getting a good education,” he said.
“We tried various things; we were open to things that would work,” the cantor continued. “We just kept trying. We were like the little train that could.”
Berlin came to PJC after having served as the spiritual leader at Beth Sholom Congregation in Johnstown. While he has worked in a cantorial capacity at various congregations since 1976, he did not begin his formal training until enrolling at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1996.
Though not ordained as a rabbi, as PJC’s spiritual leader, Berlin has been accepted into the wider Pittsburgh rabbinic community. He was even invited to become a visitor to the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.
“They changed their bylaws so that cantors like myself, and Michal Gray-Schaffer (spiritual leader of B’nai Abraham in Butler) could attend,” he said.
He has served as the associate editor of the Journal of Synagogue Music produced by the Cantors Assembly for the past 10 years, and hopes to continue in that capacity.
“I intend to consolidate and write more music for liturgical use,” Berlin said. “I have written some secular songs as well, and various choirs around the country have been performing my works.”
Berlin and his wife, Mary, have purchased a new home in Venice, Fla., and will probably be moving there in the next few months, returning to Pittsburgh for various life-cycle events at PJC, and for the high holidays.
“They’re like family,” Berlin said of his congregation. “It’s really incredible, the love and the warmth there. It’s just a wonderful place to be.”
The feeling is clearly mutual.
“It’s been a very good marriage between Parkway and [Berlin],” said Bob Korfin, president of PJC. “We’ve been blessed.”
Berlin’s dedication to visiting the sick has been greatly appreciated by PJC’s members, according to Korfin.
“Cantor Berlin has always been Johnny on the spot,” he said. “If he found out one of our members was in the hospital, he would be there within the hour to visit. He was always very, very good about that.”
So far, the congregation has no plan in place to find a successor for Berlin,
“We are not rushing [to find someone],” Korfin said. “We just want him to get his health back so when he makes his move to the Sunshine State he and Mary can enjoy their golden years.”
“He’s been very good for us,” Korfin added. “It’s been great. I don’t know if we can ever find that magic again.”
While Berlin is looking forward to the next stage of his life, he most definitely will miss his Parkway family.
“It’s been an exciting ride that God’s been taking me on,” he said. “And I’m looking forward to the next leg. But it’s been so satisfying being at Parkway. If I could be there for another 20 years, in good health I would be.”
Berlin’s upcoming retirement will create yet another personnel shift in Jewish Pittsburgh.
Announcements have recently been made that Cantor Ben Rosner of Beth Shalom, Rabbi Amy Hertz of Rodef Shalom and Rabbi Art Donsky of Temple Ohav Shalom will all be leaving their respective congregations in the near future. Likewise, announcements were made of the upcoming departures of executive directors at Rodef Shalom (Jeff Hertzog) and Temple Sinai (Bill Padnos). Aaron Weil, executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center, will be leaving this summer to head up the Hillel at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Beth Shalom is currently seeking a new youth director, the Agency for Jewish Learning is in the market for a senior director of teen programs, and the Union for Reform Judaism is looking for a Pittsburgh Youth Advisor.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)