When Rabbi Jeffrey Myers steps on stage at the Kimmel Center next month, it will be in a role he once could not have fathomed.
The rabbi and cantor had been the spiritual leader of Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh for a mere 15 months when, on a Saturday morning last October, a gunman shot his way into Sabbath services at the synagogue and killed 11 people who had come to mark the traditional day of rest and prayer.
Myers escaped and guided others to safety. Ever since, he has coped with guilt and grief while nurturing his congregants through a healing process that occurs in fits and starts.
“There is no one set of adjectives to describe" how the congregation is doing, Myers said this week. “Each member of the community is in a different place with this horror.... Some still shake their heads in disbelief, some in shock. Some are still traumatized. It covers the entire range of human emotion and experience.”
The Pittsburgh massacre thrust the rabbi onto the public stage as a spokesperson against hate speech, at a time when anti-Semitism and hate crimes are on the rise. He is bombarded with requests to make appearances, give interviews, and speak before crowds; he delivered an invocation at the swearing-in of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to a second term earlier this month.
And now comes an invitation to sing.
On Feb. 20, Myers will be one of 165 vocalists featured in “Sing Hallelujah,” a concert celebrating the immigration of Jewish people to America and the evolution of the community’s music, songs, and chants.
Myers, who formerly served as cantor at what is now Shirat Hayam synagogue in Ventnor, N.J., will lift his sweet tenor to praise a God who, for him and his congregation, has been a refuge amid harrowing despair.
Myers was conducting Shabbat services in an upstairs chapel when he heard what he thought was a falling coat rack, but was in fact the crack of Bowers’ semi-automatic weapon. As the gunman got closer, Myers recognized the sound and told the gathering of about 13 to drop to the floor.
The rabbi, who immediately called 911, was able to guide three people to safety, but seven of his congregants were killed, along with three members of New Light and one from Dor Hadash, before Bowers was wounded by police and arrested.
As Myers has helped the 250-family Tree of Life congregation cope with the tragedy, he has had to manage his own heartbreak, a period in which, he says, “there are good days and bad days.”
At the Kimmel Center, Myers will not only sing, but also give a short speech — a request from Cantor David F. Tilman, who is choir director at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park and conductor of the second annual “Sing Hallelujah” event. Tilman, who was Myers’ teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, invited the Pittsburgh rabbi and cantor to be part of the program, which will feature “Evening Service for the Sabbath" by composer Yehezkel Braun and a performance by cantor Alberto Mizrahi.
“I want him to speak to us about how we as a Philadelphia Jewish community can help him in his battle against hate and evil,” said Tilman, who also is cantor emeritus at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
Myers says he is not yet sure what he will say, but there is one word he likely won’t use: hate.
At a recent rally at Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, he pledged to banish what he called a “four-letter word and an obscenity” from his vocabulary. For him, it is now “the H-word.”
“I believe if we tone down our speech, we can also tone down our actions," Myers said. "Perhaps if more people would be thoughtful of what they say, we can have less violent acts against other human beings.”
Myers, 63, grew up in Newark, N.J., the son of a lawyer and a homemaker who later joined the workforce. He began singing in synagogue as a youngster, and led choirs and services as teen. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Hebraic studies from Rutgers University in 1977, and a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he studied at the H.L. Miller Cantorial School. He was ordained as a rabbi by the Mesifta Adath Wolkowisk rabbinical academy in New York.
“He’s a brilliant guy,” said Rabbi Charles Agin, dean of the rabbinical academy. “What happened in Pittsburgh startled and saddened us. We still haven’t gotten over it, but he is representing the synagogue, the community, and [the school] beautifully.”
With that move, his life changed forever.
Since the shooting, Tree of Life congregants have intensified their commitment to their faith and the life of the synagogue, Myers said. The congregation is worshiping at Rodef Shalom Congregation, little more than a mile away from Tree of Life, while members decide how they will rebuild.