Cantor Henry Shapiro has been making Jewish music for much of his life. Starting this month, he will be doing it on a more formal level.
Shapiro has been named the new spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center (PJC) in the Eastern Suburbs. He signed a one-year contract with the congregation last week.
Shapiro succeeds Cantor Richard Berlin, who announced his retirement earlier this year for health reasons. PJC is planning a farewell dinner for Berlin Sunday, Aug. 11, at the synagogue.
“I’m grateful to the wonderful time I had working at Parkway Jewish Center, and especially grateful for the people; it’s truly a heimish congregation,” Berlin said. “This is a good opportunity for Henry to get his foot in the door; he has a lot of knowledge, and he’s on a path similar to my own. He is a friend, and I hope things will go well.”
Shapiro starts July 23.
“It’s a welcoming community and they’re happy for me to throw myself in there,” Shapiro said of PJC. “It’s just the beginning of the relationship, but I can see there are a lot of possibilities I’m excited about. I think it’s going to be a nice shiddoch.”
Shapiro, 58, who became invested last year at the nondenominational Hebrew College in Boston, following six years of study, has been a teacher, performer and composer for nearly 30 years, much of that time in Pittsburgh where he is well known in the Jewish community.
He has performed around the city with his klezmer band, Steel City Klezmer, but he has also taught at the School for Advance Jewish Studies (now J-SITE), written film scores and composed liturgical music.
He plays the guitar, mandolin, steel drums and upright acoustic bass.
In addition to his investment, Shapiro has a master’s of Jewish education degree from Hebrew College and is a member of the Cantors Assembly, a professional organization for hazzanim.
Shapiro hopes to use his musical contacts around Pittsburgh as a way to “promote and market” PJC — a congregation of 80 families.
“If I’m playing at 50 or 100 or more events a year,” he said, “I get to see a lot of what’s going on, and so therefore marketing and promotion — what draws people in, how to get the word out — I have pretty good experience with that.
“And I also have very good connections — even though I’ve been away for five or six years — with people in the community,” he continued, “and I’m hoping to trade that in, use those connections to bring people to PJC.”
One particular talent he believes he has is to draw worshippers into the prayer experience.
“My particular advantage is I have a background of 25 to 30 years of performing. … I know how to create energy and bring people in, include them and excite them,” Shapiro said, “so that musicianship is going to be coming out, and that’s not necessarily with any instrument. I just know how to set a tempo and set a mood. I have that background.”
He hopes to eventually hold special Shabbat services at PJC to showcase different types of musical styles, melodies and motifs to his congregants — perhaps even introduce some of his own compositions.
But he noted he wasn’t planning any radical changes to melodies PJC members are used to.
“Let’s just say, if I do it, I won’t do it without warning,” Shapiro said. “The way I was taught is that when you go into a new congregation, you don’t do any new stuff for a year; you do their tunes, then you can start slipping in other stuff. They seem like a very nice bunch, and I think they’ll be open to things, but I’m not going to hit them with a long extended version of things.”
PJC President Bob Korfin said his congregation is excited to have Shapiro as its spiritual leader.
“He has a different style than Cantor Berlin, and we’re looking forward to continuing to grow with him,” Korfin said. “He’s a very nice man; he’s very musical, and we’re a very musical congregation. There’s lots of singing, lots of chanting, in our congregation.
Berlin’s influence on PJC will continue to be felt, Korfin added.
“Many of the tunes Cantor Berlin brought us will continue to be a part of our tradition,” he said, “and new traditions will begin in a couple weeks when Cantor Shapiro takes over.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)