New cantor has more than 30 years as professional musician
July 25, 2013 8:45 AM
Henry Shapiro's self-portrait, in 2011.
By Margaret Smykla
In hiring Henry Shapiro as its new cantor, the Parkway Jewish Center acquired more than a musician trained in the vocal arts to lead its congregation in song and chanted prayer.
Besides a deep knowledge of Jewish tradition, newly ordained Cantor Shapiro, 58, of Wilkinsburg brings more than 30 years of professional musicianship as performer, composer, producer, arranger, band leader, promoter and teacher to his first cantorial post.
"I'm sure I'll put a new infusion of energy in there," he said.
At 6 p.m. Friday, Cantor Shapiro will lead his first Shabbat service before the 80-family conservative Jewish congregation at 300 Princeton Drive, Penn Hills.
Afterward, a cookout will be held on center grounds. Admission is $10.
At 9:30 a.m. Saturday he will lead another service.
As ordained clergy, Cantor Shapiro said he may officiate at services, weddings, funerals and more. He replaces ordained Cantor Rick Berlin, who is retiring.
Parkway Jewish Center president Bob Korfin made the decision to hire Cantor Shapiro, with the support of the six-member board of directors.
"I met him and we just clicked. I liked his compassion with a very pleasant personality and voice," Mr. Korfin said. "I think our members will be very pleased. He will be our spiritual leader as we have no rabbi."
Cantor Shapiro grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, and attended the University of Pittsburgh to study mechanical engineering with an eye toward the family business of scrap metal and steel.
As a freshman, he discovered the joys of the guitar, playing and singing in a bluegrass band.
He said he was fired from his first engineering job, then enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston to acquire formal musical training, especially in performance guitar.
After two years, he returned to Pittsburgh. To make ends meet, he taught private lessons and performed and arranged for the folk dance band, Kaleidoscope, and for his own swing band, Henry Shapiro and Swing Fever.
Cantor Shapiro said he became more religious as his musical involvement in the Jewish community grew.
At the same time, his career was taking off in new directions he said he never imagined.
Whatever Swings, the album he produced, arranged and performed, was voted Best Pittsburgh Jazz Album by the Pittsburgh City Paper in 1994.
While continuing to teach and perform, he composed the film score for the Holocaust documentary, "A Look in the Eyes of Resistance," made by Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Kenneth Love.
"When you add it all up, it was almost a living," Cantor Shapiro said.
After working on the documentary, becoming a cantor suddenly seemed achievable, he said. For about seven years, he had been contemplating the idea as a meaningful way to combine his passion for music and Judaism.
"I thought I've done enough for myself. Maybe it was time to do stuff for other people," he recalled.
Over the next five years in Israel, Cantor Shapiro attended the University of Haifa, Machon Pardes and Conservative Yeshiva for Hebrew language and other studies preparatory to becoming a cantor.
To fund his education, he sold his house in Swissvale, acquired financial aid and school loans, and continued his local musical endeavors -- film score composer, teacher and music director/educator at the School of Advanced Jewish Studies -- between enrollments.
In 2008, he entered the Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., graduating four years later with a cantorial ordination and a master of Jewish education.
His first step in his new post will be to establish himself and then prepare for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in September.
He also will discuss his ideas for enhanced spiritual expression through music with the center's board of directors.
While services feature obligatory traditional hymns sung in Hebrew, there is room for creativity, he said, such as injecting new melodies and guitar accompaniments or writing songs that people can sing along with.
"Singing together is the power of music as it brings us closer as a community and closer to God," he said.
Cantor Shapiro's outreach efforts to introduce the center to a wider audience include drawing on his contacts borne from more than 30 years of musicianship.
He might also stage a concert or lecture series, or even a swing dance, with a goal of ending what he said is the center's "best kept secret" status.
"It's a little synagogue at the end of the road in a wooded area, and there's a lot of people not quite aware of it."