She Traveled a Long Road to Become a Rabbi

A memorial grows outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

A memorial grows outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

By Marylynne Pitz

Special to the Eagle

While Cheryl Klein was studying Hebrew for her coming-of-age bat mitzvah in 1967, she began teaching her classmates.

"I was teaching them how to sing their haftarah (biblical passages). They needed some tutoring," Rabbi Klein recalled, adding that her tutoring rate was $1 an hour.

Back then, baby sitters earned 50 cents an hour, so the 12-year-old thought she had hit the lottery.

Rabbi Klein grew up in Squirrel Hill, where she and her friends gathered often in one another's homes, at the Jewish Community Center and the beloved Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop on Forbes Avenue.

"It was the Camelot of our lives," she recalled.

A mother of four, her voice is reassuringly soft while the intelligence and fierce resolve in her blue eyes is unmistakable. She has devoted her life to Jewish education.

For more than 20 years, she taught Jewish history and Holocaust studies at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies, where she more than doubled the enrollment from 120 to 268. From 1997 to 2002, she was the school principal. (Today, it's the Jewish Site for Innovative Teen Education.)

"I always felt very Jewish. I took such great pride in our heritage and our learning," Rabbi Klein said.

As the longtime lay cantor for Congregation Dor Hadash, Rabbi Klein has been described as "the glue that has kept Dor Hadash together in service after service, according to the Squirrel Hill group's 40th anniversary booklet, published in May 2003. Dor Hadash, Western Pennsylvania's only Reconstructionist congregation, has never employed a paid rabbi, preferring leadership by its members. Rabbi Klein was ordained in 2016 but does not serve as the paid rabbi for Dor Hadash.

It's not unusual for Rabbi Klein to shed tears as she mourns the loss of 11 people from three congregations who were shot and killed at the Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha synagogue on Oct. 27. She attended all 11 funerals and shivas. In addition to Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation were using the Tree of Life facilities.

Rabbi Klein grew up in Congregation Dor Hadash and, along with its 150 members, had a deep connection to Jerry Rabinowitz, a beloved physician and Dor Hadash member who died in the attack.

"I took this very personally. This beast infringed on our city and targeted the Jewish people and targeted my synagogue. I, along with everybody else, am in a slow process of healing," she said.

Dan Leger, another longtime Dor Hadash member, is slowly recovering from serious wounds he suffered that day.

Rabbi Klein's son Jonah, who is doing his general surgery residency in Philadelphia, has raised nearly $13,000 on a GoFundMe page for a scholarship to honor Dr. Rabinowitz, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania's medical school. That school will award the scholarship to a third-year medical student who demonstrates Dr. Rabinowitz's devotion to patients and plans to go into family practice, Rabbi Klein said.

The outpouring of support from family, friends and complete strangers has helped.

"Some days are better than others. I've seen the goodness of so many people," she said.

Rabbi Klein had no idea there was a fraternity of Jewish police officers. Some of them drove in from New York City and Chicago to support Pittsburgh's police officers, who risked their lives to save people on that horrific Saturday morning. Rabbi Klein met a Jewish physician who lost a daughter in the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The physician flew in to Pittsburgh to offer his support.

Since the Tree of Life massacre, Dor Hadash worship services have drawn as many as 200 people. Founded in 1963, Congregation Dor Hadash was Pittsburgh's first egalitarian synagogue where women could hold leadership roles. It's often called a "do it yourself" synagogue" because a six-member board of volunteers leads the congregation instead of a paid rabbi and that keeps membership dues low.

Rabbi Klein never trained with a cantor. During her first year with Dor Hadash, the congregation ordered cassette tapes and she spent an entire summer learning the melodies she had to sing during the High Holy Days services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

As an ordained rabbi, she continues to lend her wealth of knowledge to Dor Hadash. In March, she will do her first destination wedding for a couple in Hilton Head, S.C.

About every five years, members debate whether to hire a rabbi, but so far they have not. Dor Hadash does not own a building and held services at two schools in Squirrel Hill before moving to the Tree of Life building on Wilkins Avenue. Two weeks ago, the congregation moved to Josiah Cohen chapel at Rodef Shalom Temple in Shadyside.

By the time Rabbi Klein was hired to be the cantor for Dor Hadash in 1986, she had a 2-year-old daughter, Adina, and a 1-year-old son, Ari. The following year, she delivered twin sons, Dustin and Jonah.

For 33 years, she has chanted the prayers at Friday night and Saturday morning services. Even her childhood prepared her to be a cantor. She spent Saturday mornings with the youngest members of Dor Hadash, which means "new generation."

As a young member herself, she also was musical. By age 6, she was taking voice lessons at the Pittsburgh Playhouse on Saturday afternoons.

"I knew Mr. McFeely," she said, referencing David Newell, who played that role on the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" television show. "I knew David when he was working at the children's theater."

After completing her sophomore year at Taylor Allderdice High School, she enrolled at Hillel Academy. In addition, during the evenings and on Sundays, she studied Jewish history, literature and Hebrew at the College Of Jewish Studies, an intensive program of study led by Aharon Kessler, who recruited Hebrew teachers from Israel.

"It was the premier model of a supplemental Jewish high school," she recalled. "Education, for me, has always been the power to rise above and be successful."

Rabbi Klein earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Pittsburgh during the 1970s. For decades, she has officiated at funerals, weddings and baby-naming ceremonies for Dor Hadash members. But she wanted to learn and do everything possible to preserve Jewish culture, customs, liturgy and heritage.

Starting in 2014, she began two years of intensive distance learning. For 40 hours each week, she locked herself in a room and studied at the Cooper-Siegel Library in O'Hara.

"I probably was destined to go on this path," Rabbi Klein said. "Women in the 1970s were not being given that extra shove into the rabbinate. I felt driven."

In 2016, during an emotional ceremony at the Holocaust Resource Center in the New York City borough of Queens, she was ordained a nondenominational rabbi. She was the only woman in a class of four graduates. The Mesifta Adat Wolkowisk Rabbinical Academy in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens operates the program where she received her training. Applicants typically have a minimum of 25 years as Jewish professionals; many trainees are either cantors or educators.

The first blessing she offered as an ordained rabbi was at the June 2016 wedding of her son Jonah and his bride, Robin.

"I call Dor Hadash my second love affair because it has truly been a blessing to serve the congregation," she said.

For Jews, Rabbi Klein added, "Staying strong is an important part of who we are. When our backs are against the wall you can try and push the wall down or run around the wall. Or you can put each other on top of your shoulders so that you can look over the other side of the wall and see hope. We always look for the hope."

A version of this article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.