Rabbi David Meyer has been the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead since 1992. He lives in town with his wife, Marla, who is a licensed independent clinical social worker and has a private practice. They have two sons: Cory lives in Washington, D.C., and works as the global content manager for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group and Jeremy works as a production associate at the Major League Baseball Network in Secaucus, N.J., where he recently won his second Emmy for his work on “MLB Tonight.”
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up, and your family background?
I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City (Prairie Village, Kan.), and was raised in an observant family in keeping with practices of the Reform Movement. In fact, I was confirmed at the same Temple in Kansas City as my great-grandfather, grandparents, and parents. We attended services pretty regularly, and my parents were involved as volunteers. I attended Jewish summer camp for several years, and then became active in our Temple youth group, where I served on the regional board of the Missouri Valley Federation of Temple Youth. In my high school and then college years, I would go on to be a camp songleader for many years in Colorado and Los Angeles.
I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in music from the University of Kansas in 1980. I then went on to rabbinical school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, and then continued my studies at the campus in Los Angeles and then in Cincinnati, where I was ordained in 1986. I later earned a Master’s of Theology at Harvard, and more recently was awarded an honorary doctorate of divinity from my HUC-JIR alma mater.
What made you want to become a rabbi?
I worked my way through college traveling [primarily] around the Midwest and West Coast performing and teaching Jewish music. That brought me into a great number of communities and congregations. I found that I enjoyed the deeper study of our traditional texts, and I came to see that Jewish life is profoundly good for people, for families, and really for the world around us. I had wonderful rabbinic role models growing up, and felt that as a profession, it would be a path to making a difference and doing meaningful work in my daily life. I knew that the challenges would require a wide set of personal skills, and I also liked the idea of having no two days be alike!
What’s the most rewarding part of being a rabbi?
Having been at Temple Emanu-El for a generation now, being part of the many key family moments – joyful as well as painful – has been a privilege and special honor. I am now teaching the children of my former students, and it’s remarkable to stand beneath the chuppah with my former B’nai Mitzvah! Being part of the larger Jewish and non-Jewish community for these three decades has provided so many opportunities for teaching, learning, and contributing in a positive way, and of course, the relationships I’ve been part of along the way have brought so much meaning to my life and that of my family. I’ve led many trips to Israel over the years, and I so enjoy sharing the places I love with our friends, congregants, and even our non-Jewish neighbors.
This has been a challenging year for all because of COVID. It has upended so much of traditional synagogue life – from communal prayer to Hebrew School to burying our dead. As a rabbi, what are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face this year and how have you dealt with them?
The biggest challenges for me – as for our leadership and staff – have been to reimagine how we connect, learn, and observe our Judaism as a congregation forced into varying degrees of isolation. Many of our assumptions have had to be set aside as we’ve relied on new approaches and technologies. In some ways, we’ve been making this up as we go, because it’s been such an unprecedented time. I can’t predict precisely how, but I am certain that coming out of the pandemic we will see Jewish life having been transformed in profound ways that will shape our future. Remote experiences will continue to be part of our cultural expectations, meaning that the boundaries between congregations and communities, between members and non-affiliated families, will become more blurred and permeable. Our challenge will be to continue to find ways to allow us all to feel connected, and to maintain and build the relationships which are at the core of our vision.
What’s your message to congregants and fellow Jews who have been isolated during this time?
Gam zeh ya-avor – This, too shall pass! So please stay in touch to let me and our colleagues know how we can be of support and comfort. Whether online or by phone, and soon (we hope) with an occasional in-person connection, we are here for one another. Meanwhile, stay safe and patient.
What’s the hardest part about being a rabbi?
I’d begin with the obviously heartbreaking times for which I’m called upon to guide dear ones into and through the most painful moments (such as the loss of a child or young parent). But on a regular basis, it’s a special challenge to always bring my very best to the wide variety of occasions for which I’m called upon. Whether it be a book discussion, a sermon, a life-cycle occasion, an adult learning seminar, a family service or confirmation class, I want to always bring my “A-Game” to everything I do! That all takes a great deal more preparation than most people realize, and a degree of both creative and physical energy that can certainly be taxing. And for my family, knowing that they must sacrifice a certain measure of privacy and of their own time with me can be trying at times. But in those times when I feel stretched, stressed, and even exhausted, I remind myself that it’s all not simply a matter of ‘This is what I do because this is what I have been trained to do,’ or – God forbid (!) – ‘This is what I do because it’s what I am paid to do.’ But rather ‘This is what I do because this is part of the meaning of who I am and how I choose to live my life!’
According to a 2013 Pew report, just about one-third of all American Jews affiliate with a synagogue. What do temples need to do/implement to remain relevant to Jews and to grow?
I don’t think that there’s a silver bullet that would be the answer for every congregation, for every family. We’ve developed a model at Temple Emanu-El that is being embraced in many communities around the country. I believe that synagogues need to begin with relationships, out of which programming can emerge. We need to be a place where people and families come not as “consumers,” but as creators of meaningful Jewish life. And we must move away from the model of “membership,” and instead try to instill a sense of “belonging.”
When you’re not in synagogue, how do you like to best spend your time?
It’s hugely important for the well-being of rabbis and other clergy to nurture interests that allow us to recharge physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Of course, I continue to compose and record Jewish music. My music partner, Jon Nelson, and I are working on our third album of original music. That’s been wonderful both in the synagogue and beyond. I also host a weekly segment on “Chagigah,” the Jewish music culture program on WERS-FM. I have always tried to stay physically active. I enjoy golf, I love fishing, as well as hiking, skiing, and running. In my time here, I’ve completed 15 marathons, and served as a captain on the Children’s Hospital Marathon Team. Fulfilling a similar goal, I ran the Tel Aviv Half-Marathon not long ago. Perhaps somewhat due to the largesse of my teammates, I’m still holding down the shortstop position on my summertime softball team, which has been a source of lasting friendships since the year we arrived. Recently I began taking an interest in rock polishing and jewelry making, and a great afternoon off for me is to be in the kitchen cooking for my family and friends.