It’s been decades since Tree of Life Congregation — now Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha — has had a full-time cantor on its staff. But that all changed on Aug. 1 with the addition of Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the new spiritual leader of the Conservative congregation located on the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues.
Myers, who received his cantorial investiture from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and his rabbinic ordination from the unaffiliated Mesivta Adat Wolkowisk, has spent his life on the East Coast and is just now getting his feet used to Pittsburgh soil. He likes how it feels so far.
“The people at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha have been very warm and friendly,” he said. “I’m excited about this new opportunity to serve the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.”
Myers grew up in Newark, N.J. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, before commencing his cantorial studies.
But he has been leading congregations in song and prayer since he was a teenager. “I was a boy soprano in the choir for many years, and the cantor of the synagogue I grew up in took a liking to me and taught me many of the synagogue skills,” Myers recalled. When that cantor had a stroke just prior to the High Holidays one year, the 15-year-old Myers was called upon to take charge of the choir.
“There was not enough time to hire enough people to do what we needed, so they hired a High Holiday cantor, but the cantor would not have had enough opportunity to learn the vast repertoire of the choir,” Myers said “So, the story is the adults all met and they made the determination that the best person to lead the choir was me. I just had the knack for doing it. I knew all four parts of every piece, and it just came to me very naturally.”
Because the young Myers had learned a lot of the prayers, he was also charged with leading parts of the High Holiday service that year and continued to do so throughout high school and college.
He has served his entire professional career as a cantor and Jewish educator. For 19 years, he served a congregation on Long Island, until it closed and merged with another congregation. For the last seven years, he served as cantor and educator at Beth Judah in Ventnor, N.J.
Myers sought rabbinic ordination, he said, to preserve his marketability as a spiritual leader in a shifting Jewish communal landscape.
“I saw there were challenges ahead for those of us who wanted to serve as professional cantors,” he said. “There is a downturn in synagogues, and with that, fewer cantors are needed in the United States. I felt this would be something critically important to have, to be able to one day provide a way to continue to take care of my family as best as I could.”
That day came, he said, “when my previous congregation discontinued the position of hazzan. And I am fortunate and grateful that Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha felt that I could offer them what they needed, and I am honored to be called to serve them.”
What Myers brings to the Squirrel Hill Congregation “are the skills of an ordained cantor, to be able to chant a beautiful service for Shabbat and holidays, as well as to offer the teachings of our tradition. I’d like to think that for a synagogue such as Tree of Life, that’s hitting a win-win.”
Michael Eisenberg, president of TOL*OLS, agrees. It has been many years since the congregation had a cantor on staff, he said, so the fact that Myers is ordained both as a cantor and a rabbi was appealing to the congregation.
During its search for a new spiritual leader to succeed Rabbi Chuck Diamond, TOL*OLS brought three rabbinic candidates to the congregation on three separate weekends to lead services and meet the membership.
“Rabbi Myers was by far the clear choice,” said Eisenberg. “He had a very professional approach to the pulpit, he had a very nice voice, and he interacted with the people on both a ritual and a secular level. He’s down-to-earth, but he takes his job very seriously.”
Myers’ approach “resonated” with the Conservative congregation, Eisenberg said.
While Diamond had been officiating at interfaith weddings for the last four years at TOL*OLS, Myers will not be doing so. He will not, however, “stand in the way” of someone else officiating at such a ceremony held at the synagogue, Eisenberg said.
Myers has wide experience as an educator, ranging from getting “down on the floor” to work with preschool children, to tutoring men celebrating the 70th anniversary of their bar mitzvahs. He plans to continue his emphasis on education during his tenure at TOL*OLS and will take advantage of daily opportunities to incorporate learning.
Myers’ wife, Janice Myers, is also an educator, specializing in working with students with special needs. He has two children — a daughter, who is also a special education teacher, and a son who recently graduated from college.
He is eager to get started on his work at TOL*OLS.
“I intend to work closely with the leadership of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, to learn of their needs, what their vision is as a congregation, their mission and how we can work together to fulfill that, meet that and even surpass it,” he said.
Myers currently serves as a trustee on the executive board of the Jewish Educators Assembly. He has also served on the National Education Commission of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the National Deliberation Team for Project Etgar, the new curriculum for the middle school that is a joint project of the USCJ and the Melton Institute.
He received a Schechter Award for his interfaith Evening of Harmony that commemorates the Holocaust, as well as awards for synagogue and family programming. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at