MARBLEHEAD – Who wouldn’t want to be welcomed to a neighborhood?
This was the idea envisioned by Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead as he reimagined the synagogue in 2012. Now, five years after the introduction of the “neighborhood” concept in 2014, the temple is bustling with activity – so much so that its resources are being stretched to capacity.
“Three overarching ideas guided us in our decision to reorganize around the concept of neighborhoods,” says Meyer.
“First is that we wanted the temple’s programming to emerge from the relationships formed between members, and not the other way around,” he explains. “Second, we wanted to give members an opportunity to be creators, not consumers, of Jewish life. And third, we wanted to replace the concept of membership with the idea of belonging.”
In the spirit of the last principle, Temple Emanu-El was the first area synagogue that dropped its dues requirement in favor of individual pledges.
Throughout the process, Meyer and his leadership team were intent on transitioning from the transactional element of temple life – the member pays a certain amount in dues and gets certain services in return – to a relational system, in which members coalesce organically into areas of interest and create grassroots programming to meet their own interests.
To further develop their ideas, the temple retained a full-time consultant, Rabbi Margie Klein, to collect input from 50 members who, in turn, led individual house meetings to discuss the congregation’s “wish list.” After hearing from over 200 congregants, the team gathered the statistics and anecdotes together and developed the neighborhood structure.
The “neighborhoods” at Temple Emanu-El now include a dozen active groups whose members – and even non-members – can join or leave at will. They include: Families with Children, Jewish Learning, Bodies in Motion, Social Action, Jewish Music, Senior Connection, Holidays Together and several others.
The temple maintains its traditional Sisterhood, Brotherhood, and youth groups, and individual task forces to deal with other important issues, such as security and finances.
A full-time director, Shelby Chapper, helps the groups by managing meeting spaces, ordering food, overseeing custodial needs and the like.
“She makes everything happen,” is the way some of those who work with her describe her.
Meyer says the neighborhoods “build on themselves” and get people involved in synagogue life.
“It’s no coincidence that service attendance has doubled or tripled in the last five years since we started the neighborhoods,” he says. “People enjoy seeing people they know at services, and when they come to services, they tend to meet more people. Most of our members primarily connect through social interaction.”
One key requirement in forming a new neighborhood is recruiting someone to lead it.
Mark Sherf, a long-time Emanu-El member, co-leads the Bodies in Motion neighborhood with Richie Kessel. Sherf also launched the Book Group neighborhood, in which he also participates.
“The temple has been good to my family,” says Sherf. “We’ve had a wonderful experience here and I wanted to give back to the congregation in the best way I could – by generating activities that would get people moving, going, and seeing things, often outside of the temple.”
So far, the Bodies in Motion neighborhood has gone paddling and taken a historical Jewish tour of Marblehead (led by Sherf, a college history professor), and is planning a multi-generational Frisbee outing and a private tour of the Peabody Essex Museum addition.
“The temple is not just for davening [praying] anymore,” says Sherf. “In a way, we’re experiencing a throwback to the days of our parents and grandparents, when the temple was the hub of social activity.”
Congregations around the country have contacted Meyer to learn more about Temple Emanu-El’s neighborhood model, and he is more than happy to share its experience and consult with others looking to remodel their own synagogue.
“There are many entrances to temple life, and through the neighborhood program, we’ve created a systematic way of opening new doors,” says Meyer. “Neighborhoods are where relationships are forged, and the temple is built on relationships. There are no barriers here. Everybody’s welcome.”