Cantor Rena Shapiro has been in Pittsburgh about two and half years, but in that short time has already found her niche in the Jewish community here.
Actually, it would be more accurate to say “niches.”
The Poughkeepsie, N.Y., transplant serves as the part-time spiritual leader at the Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge and has helped lead services at Temple Emanuel and Beth El, both in the South Hills. But now, the cantor is about to embark on something new: the creation of a community choir.
The South Hills Shalom Singers Community Choir will have its first rehearsal, as well as an opening information session, on Feb. 20 at the South Hills Jewish Community Center. The group is open to adults with “a love of music and the ability to carry a tune,” Shapiro said. No audition is required.
“People tell me there has been no choir here in a while, so that’s another gap I can fill in,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro, who was ordained in 2001 at the pluralistic Academy of Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y, moved to Pittsburgh in 2014 following the death of her husband so that she could live near her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. She came to the Steel City with 24 years of cantorial experience under her belt, having served a congregation in Poughkeepsie as a “cantorial leader” even prior to her ordination.
When she came to Pittsburgh, Shapiro knew it would be difficult to find cantorial work, as most congregations here do not have cantors on staff. So, she set her sights right from the beginning on forming a choir.
“I had been active in Jewish and interfaith choral work for 24 years,” Shapiro said. “Choirs are one of my fortes.”
But because she was a newcomer to town, Shapiro focused on building relationships first.
“I said, ‘No one knows me,’” she recalled. “So, I joined both Temple Emanuel and Beth El to meet people. The rabbis there were supportive and welcoming. And over the years, people have gotten to know me.”
Shapiro reached out to Rob Goodman, director of South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, about a year ago to discuss the possibility of forming a choir. Beginning last fall, things began to take shape.
“Cantor Rena and I sat down and put together a framework and presented it to the programming committee of South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh and to members of Temple Emanuel and Beth El,” Goodman said. “The idea was that the choir would be open to anybody, and they would just get together to sing.”
If the choir gelled, he said, in time it could perform at such venues as Concordia of the South Hills, a senior living facility and at community events.
Goodman said that he hoped the choir would help build community among Jews in the South Hills — those affiliated with congregations, as well as those who are not.
Shapiro’s first step in forming her choir is to gauge interest, she said. Once she establishes that the choir appeals to enough people, she will draw songs from the “vast repertoire” she has collected over the years and begin by having the choir members sing in rounds. From there, she will move to two-part pieces, then move on to more complicated arrangements.
The choir will rehearse twice a month at the South Hills JCC. Some songs will be sung a cappella, while others may be accompanied by Shapiro on the guitar or keyboard.
The cantor is open to eventually having her choir perform at South Hills interfaith events, such as the annual Thanksgiving or Yom HaShoah programs.
“We will see where this takes us, and I will see where I can take them,” she said. “Music speaks louder than words.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.