MAY 18, 2017 — Last Friday morning, Amy Farber smiled as she strolled through the lobby of Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester. It had been a good week for Cape Ann’s sole shul. The previous Sunday, Neshama Carlebach headlined a sold-out fundraiser at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center to kick off the synagogue’s planned $2.5 million endowment fund for family learning. The fund will be named in honor of Rabbi Myron and Eileen Geller, the temple’s retired spiritual leaders.
With 180 households, Ahavat Achim is not the largest shul on the North Shore but it might be one of its most dynamic. Nearly 10 years ago on an early Saturday morning, flames consumed the congregation’s 179-year-old structure that had served as its temple since 1951. As they grieved the loss of a neighbor who died in the blaze, and its five Torahs that were also consumed, congregants met later that morning for Shabbat services in a Unitarian Universalist church.
It took almost four years to rebuild on the site, and members met, and prayed, alternately, in a real estate office, people’s homes, and in an office overlooking a site where Gloucester holds its Greasy Pole Contest each June. In 2011, the new building opened and welcomed back its egalitarian members.
“Cape Ann is a place where people choose to live. It’s not a place where people come to have an intense Jewish surrounding,” said Farber, who helped organize the Carlebach concert and is set to become the next president of Ahavat Achim. “People come to synagogue because of relationships and I think that has been true in this synagogue as long as I’ve been here.”
Around the corner at the Pleasant Street Tea Co., Mark Arnold gushed about the synagogue where he’s been a member since moving from Swampscott in 2009. A Newton native, he worked for Dow Jones and covered the White House during Watergate in the 1970s.
Arnold, who also helped organize the concert, along with Farber and Debbie Hilbert, believes the synagogue mirrors the tone of the Jewish professionals, artists, and retirees who live on Cape Ann.
“Everyone is accepted as they are. There’s no status differentiation; we don’t suck up to rich people and they don’t get to sit in the front row of the temple. They’re like everybody else,” he said.
Before the concert, the crowd stood and applauded when the Gellers were introduced. Soon Carlebach – the daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, one of the seminal Jewish songwriters of the 20th century – took the stage with her four-piece band, and her backing gospel choir. Carlebach, who is a rock star in her own right and has sold over 1 million albums, did not disappoint. She offered up newer songs with English lyrics, but also dipped into her father’s vast repertoire and performed “Y’hi Shalom,” “Asher Bara,” and “Ki Va Moed.”
Before her encore, students from the temple’s Hebrew School presented Carlebach with a ceramic mezuzah they had made, and then joined her to sing “Am Yisrael Chai.” Earlier in the day, they had taken their own mezuzahs home and affixed them to their doors.
On Pleasant Street, Arnold marveled at the children’s enthusiasm, and as he spoke, he noticed Miriam Weinstein – a former Ahavat Achim president – who had arrived with some friends.
They exchanged small talk about the temple and fundraiser and waved goodbye. “I’ve been on many boards but this is the only board I’ve been on in a Jewish setting where people work together and there are no factions,” he said. “People here listen to each other.”