by Hazzan Randy Herman
I have been to nearly every annual Cantors Assembly Convention since my cantorial-student days at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). I find the three days spent each year re-connecting with my colleagues and friends – the singing, the concerts, the learning, the socializing – to be wonderfully rejuvenating. And I always enjoy meeting and speaking to those who’ve been in the cantorate much longer than me, cantors with a lifetime of stories and experience.
Jeff has a humble and quiet way about him, definitely not one of the flashy cantors.
One such cantor who has always been particularly easy to connect with was Cantor Jeff Myers. He had the warmth, the friendliness, and the interest in knowing my name and who I was. Jeff has a humble and quiet way about him, definitely not one of the flashy cantors. He was never in your face, never seeking the limelight; just a truly decent, heimish, wonderful individual, with a clear passion for Jewish education and establishing authentic relationships. While we never knew each other extremely well, there was always a warm and friendly collegiality which I’m sure he shared with many others.
I vaguely remember him telling me once that he was studying to pursue rabbinic ordination, that he enjoyed the learning and wanted to expand professionally. Jeff had been a cantor for many years. He actually led the choir at his shul when he was only 15, then went on after college to receive a degree in Sacred Music from the cantorial school at JTS, as well as a Masters in Jewish Education. He served as a cantor for decades at synagogues in Illinois, Long Island (19 years in Massapequa, until his shul merged with another) and New Jersey.
Jeff had been leading his new congregation for barely over a year when the tragedy struck. With horror, I realized, “My God – it’s Jeff Myers’ shul.”
When his last congregation of seven years made the unfortunate decision of discontinuing the position of cantor altogether, Jeff began his first position as a rabbi – at the Tree of Life Congregation, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. He started there in August of 2017, where he is known as Rabbi-Cantor Jeffrey Myers. “Rabbi-Cantor Myers was by far the clear choice,” said shul president Michael 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.”
Jeff had been leading his new congregation, in his very first position as sole spiritual leader of a community, for barely over a year when the tragedy struck. With horror, I realized, “My God – it’s Jeff Myers’ shul.” And by the very next day, there he was, all over the television – with Anderson Cooper, with Donald Trump… with reporters asking him difficult and at times agonizingly inappropriate questions a mere 24 hours after the shooting (“Will you be able to forgive the shooter?” “Would you welcome the President to your synagogue?”).
My colleagues and I watched in awe and amazement as our friend – the quiet, unassuming, genuinely humble Jeffrey Myers – rose to the near-impossible task of navigating this horrific and overwhelming situation: managing the national press and political pressures, leading his congregation through the tragedy, comforting grieving families while officiating at multiple funerals and shiva minyanim…. The role of spokesman for the American Jewish people was instantly thrust upon him, even while the trauma was still fresh and raw; leadership on an international scale was suddenly demanded of him – and true leadership is what he gave us.
True leadership inspires and unifies, and cannot be defeated...Cantor-Rabbi Jeffrey Myers...let us all know - through his tone, his words, his demeanor - that we are stronger than evil, that we will survive.
We crave strong, true leadership in our lives, more so in a crisis. We yearn for leaders who confidently and genuinely embody the loftiest ideals we hold dear, who cannot be swayed from the true path, who hold fast to the deep communal center when the going gets roughest. A true leader does not get rattled. A true leader is completely there for you, completely trustworthy. A true leader finds the perfect words when everyone else is at a loss for them. True leadership inspires and unifies, and cannot be defeated. Cantor-Rabbi Jeffrey Myers did and is all of these things. He let us all know - through his tone, his words, his demeanor - that we are stronger than evil, that we will survive.
There is enormous pride among Cantors Assembly members for Jeff Myers. We Conservative cantors are a relatively small group, maybe 500 plus, which is perhaps why we cherish each other so, and why we love to gather together every year. At our CA convention this coming spring, Cantor Jeffrey Myers will be receiving a special award “in recognition of his incredible calm and passion in responding to this tragedy….” He reminded us all, cantors and congregants, Jews and non-Jews, that in the worst imaginable situations we can be courageous, calm, and act entirely from our best selves. He showed us what human beings are truly capable of. And he reminded us, in these oh, so troubling times, what a real leader is.
Randy Herman is the Hazzan of Bet Torah in Mt. Kisko, NY