Nikki Avershal can make music from a barroom stage or from a synagogue bima — and she actually does.
The 21-year-old singer is simultaneously the new youth director and music coordinator for Temple Ohav Shalom and a member of one of Pittsburgh’s newest bands, Vindell.
Avershal, a suburban Philadelphia native, graduated last year from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science and English writing. At first, she planned on going to law school, but then decided to get a job and stick around Pittsburgh a while longer.
“I graduated from college a year early so all my friends were still in school,” she said. “I wanted to stay around because I had spent so much time creating a community for myself in Pittsburgh and I really wanted to be able to foster that some more.”
That decision eventually led to an interview with Rabbi Art Donsky of Temple Ohav Shalom, which led to a job, which pushed her law career to the proverbial backburner.
Avershal, who sings and writes for Vindell, said there’s very little crossover between her temple and stage careers.
Very little, but some.
“Occasionally, I have sat down to write a Jewish song or two. In that way, the song writing comes in to my job as Jewish director.”
She also noted that the acoustic versions of her Vindell songs aren’t as out of place in a synagogue setting as one might imagine.
“When we write these songs and you hear the ideas they don’t sound like rock and roll at all,” she said. “It’s really when you add the drums and bass that they take on that aura.”
In addition to the trumpet, which she has played since fourth grade, Avershal — a self-taught musician — plays the guitar and piano.
She grew up singing Jewish songs, both at her synagogue and as a song leader at her Jewish youth group. Her mother, a music teacher at her synagogue, became one of her inspirations.
“I learned a lot from her,” she said.
Ohav Shalom isn’t Avershal’s first Jewish music gig. She was the song leader for a Jewish youth group at her hometown congregation in Lower Merion, which laid the foundation for her music career.
While at Pitt, she led services at the Hillel Jewish University Center and found time to co-found The VoKols, an a capella group that performs both Jewish and American pop music throughout the city.
Avershal described Vindell’s music as rock, but with influence from jazz, pop and even punk.
Vindell, whose band members range in age from 21 to 25, took second place in Pittsburgh’s Battle of the Bands this past August. The band released its first CD in March and went on a tour over the summer, playing 23 shows in 25 days, mostly in the Midwest.
She performed on live radio, in coffee houses and in larger venues. All five members write songs, though Avershal primarily sings and plays the piano.
“Ultimately, the goal for myself is to be able to be doing what I love and getting paid for it,” she said. “I’m doing that right now at the synagogue; my greater goal is to be able to make a good life out of being a musician.”
Avershal said it can sometimes be difficult to balance her two jobs, but so far, she is handling it pretty well and making them both work. She said she hasn’t put one job over the other. She is very enthused about her new position with Temple Ohav Shalom.
“I’m really enjoying it. It was very difficult to have the High Holidays be my first real stint; that was a lot of pressure,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to not only working with the kids, but my job is allowing me to work with every single member of the congregation, which is very exciting.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
...while Gray-Schaffer sings for the troops at Fort Campbell
The idea of leading a flock of Screaming Eagles might be daunting to some, but newly invested Cantor Michele Gray-Schaffer has found she’s up to the task.
Gray-Schaffer, who last month took her place as the first and only invested Reform cantor in western Pennsylvania, drove 600 miles to Fort Campbell, Ky., to serve as the High Holiday cantor for Jewish members of the 101st Airborne Division.
The Fort Campbell congregation, whose roughly 40 members meet in a church, is a “wonderful, haimesh congregation,” Gray-Schaffer said. She served as cantor, of course, while a lay leader “took the part of the rabbi.” Communal meals to celebrate the holidays were prepared in a kosher kitchen located in a trailer behind the church.
Gray-Schaffer became an invested cantor on Sept. 11 by the Cantorial Certification Program of the School of Sacred Music/American Conference of Cantors after nine years of study. It took her six years to complete the program, and another three years to fulfill the necessary prerequisites to qualify for admission.
Gray-Schaffer decided to become an invested cantor after serving as a music specialist at Rodef Shalom Congregation. Although she found the curriculum challenging, she said, “I felt called to do it, and to stick with it.”
Because the certification program provides a syllabus and testing, but no instructors, Gray-Schaffer had to learn all the material for the courses on her own.
And the material was copious.
“There was a 50-page syllabus, and one history course had 24 books,” she recalled.
“The program was really difficult,” she said.
She had to become proficient in translation, sight singing and seven different cantillation systems, as well as dictum (Hebrew grammar) and musicianship.
Gray-Shaffer skillfully rose to the challenge, according to Cantor Rick Berlin, spiritual leader of Parkway Jewish Center, who served as both her tutor and mentor.
Berlin recommended Gray-Shaffer for the High Holiday position at Fort Campbell, considering her to be a “take-authority girl — someone who will go in there with the passion and compassion that the prayers require.”
Gray-Shaffer, who now leads a monthly alternative service at Rodef Shalom, will soon be looking for a full-time job in her new field. She realizes that many congregations no longer employ cantors, relying instead on cantorial soloists or lay leaders to chant the liturgy, so she is willing to become a spiritual leader of a congregation, much like Berlin.
“I think that’s something she could excel at,” Berlin said. “Michele is dedicated to life-long learning, which is an important first step. And she is very knowledgeable in her field.”
While many Reform and Conservative congregations now favor the contemporary folk songs of musicians such as Debbie Friedman, Gray-Shaffer says she prefers a mix of traditional chanting along with more modern melodies.
“I think there should be a mix,” she said. “We shouldn’t throw out the old, which is our tradition going back 2,000 years.
“But I like to be the kind of cantor that encourages singing and participation. You go with the needs of your congregation. You can’t be a leader if you don’t have any followers.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)