Rabbi Aaron Meyer first heard the call to the rabbinate while working as a college student at a local synagogue as a way to “pay for pizza and beer,” he said.
“I was an environmental science major at Ohio State — go Bucks! — and I started working at a Reform synagogue, Temple Israel in Columbus,” recalled Meyer, who came to Temple Emanuel of South Hills on July 1 to assume the Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler Senior Rabbi Pulpit.
In his position as a full-time youth and family educator in Columbus in his early 20s, Meyer faced a particularly challenging experience when a 16-year-old leader of the community passed away. As it was a time of rabbinic transition, and many congregants did not have a long connection with the interim rabbi there, they turned to Meyer for comfort.
“I was ill-equipped to be there for them, and I was completely out of my league,” he said. “But I got to see the beauty of Jewish community when all of those kids simply came to the synagogue just to be together. And I realized there is something beautiful there that I wanted to learn more about, and being a rabbi allows me to be a part of those important moments in people’s lives — both those that are tragic as well as those that are joyous and uplifting — and it offers me the chance to be a student and a teacher for the rest of my life. What could be better than that?”
He knows he has “big shoes to fill” as he succeeds Mahler’s 38-year tenure as the spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel, but the Erie native and 2011 graduate of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, is ready to hit the ground running.
“I think there are many people for whom their only rabbi is Rabbi Mahler,” Meyer acknowledged. “And they are tremendous shoes to fill. Fortunately, I happen to have large feet, and am eager to do so. I am blessed to have Rabbi Mahler still in this community to continue to learn from, and hopefully access as a professional resource, not only for myself but for congregants. And Rabbi Jessica Locketz [rabbi and director of education] has been here for 15 years, so she knows this community inside and out, and the community knows her well. So, while I am the new guy, I am building on the shoulders of giants.”
Meyer spent the last eight years at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, an 1800-family congregation in Seattle Washington, where he led multiple Shabbat services each week, and taught a Torah study group and other adult education courses.
He is married to Rabbi Emily Meyer, who led a small congregation in Seattle and taught at a Jewish day school. They met while in seminary, and now have two children, Evelyn, 3, and Eli, 7 months. They are making their home in Upper St. Clair.
Meyer is excited to continue his rabbinate in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, an area which is growing Jewishly, he said.
“I took heart in the demographic study that the Jewish Federation recently did that indicated that about 20 percent of the Jewish population is living here in the South Hills,” he said. “I think that is an enviable demographic position to be in, and leveraging the amazing school systems in Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon, young families like my own are attracted to this area, which is a tremendous strength, as well as having an amazing early childhood program here. That brings a lot of energy into this congregation, and will allow it to continue to thrive at a time when other synagogues in the Jewish world are concerned about their numbers.”
Meyer has a firm belief that Jewish values compel action when it comes to making the world a better place, and that interfaith inclusiveness can help the Jewish community flourish.
“I think that Reform Judaism offers an unapologetic vision in line with prophetic Judaism of what this world needs to be, and our values demand certain actions of us and those around us in this world, not in a partisan political sense but in a tzedeck-driven vision for what this world could be,” he said. “We have a tremendous opportunity to do good in this world, and I think our values compel us to do so.”
While in Seattle, he spearheaded the TDHS Campaign for Gun Responsibility, and advocated for better support for those experiencing homelessness. He testified before the Washington state and federal legislatures as a representative of the Jewish community on issues of criminal justice reform, gun responsibility, LGBTQ+ equality and a more just Farm Bill.
He was also co-chair of the Faith Action Network, Washington State’s largest interfaith coalition.
In terms of interfaith work within the congregation, Meyer would like to see the Jewish tent open a bit wider.
“We need to do a better job of recognizing those who make the choice every single day to be involved and invested in the synagogue are the ones with a Jewish soul,” he said. “In fact, that’s not how they started off by birth. Maybe they married a Jewish partner and have chosen a committed Jewish life, maybe they themselves have decided to convert, maybe they are exploring it for the first time. But if we open our tent to be even more inclusive, we will be surprised by the goodness in people and the ways in which their diverse backgrounds can so enrich our Jewish community.”
The rabbi is “passionate” about working with older congregants. While in rabbinical school, he participated in the U.S. Army Chaplain Candidate Program and did clinical pastoral education with Hebrew SeniorLife, a Harvard University gerontology affiliate. He holds a certificate in gerontology from the University of Washington.
“My particular passion is working with people who are a bit older than I am, in a different stage of their life,” he said. “I think there is a tremendous amount of wisdom and knowledge that we have to honor and to glean, as well as to recognize the lifeblood of the Jewish community right now are those that are not only empty-nesters, but continue to be invested and involved in synagogue life after their children have flown the coop.”
He also enjoys working with young people, helping them to prepare for their bar and bar mitzvahs, and finding ways “that Judaism can be relevant in their lives, and accessible as well as applicable.”
Although Temple Emanuel has managed to maintain its membership at a time when many congregations are struggling, Meyer acknowledges that in the 21st century, synagogues generally are facing unique challenges.
“I think people are yearning for relevance, and need congregations to prove their value proposition, that we have an obligation to make the most of people’s time when they are here,” he said. “We are asking a tremendous amount of people in terms of their time and their financial resources to be a part of the Jewish community and it’s our obligation to meet them where they’re at: to work with them on Jewish education, on building up values, offering up a safe haven from the somewhat crazy world in which we live as well as continuing to build a community, and the interpersonal relationships that allow everyone to thrive.
“And it grows and changes,” he continued. “Synagogues can no longer do what they have always done and expect to get what they have always got. Either we continue to innovate, to continue to change with the times and with the families who walk through the door, or we have lost that relevance and we are not going to see them again.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at