GLOUCESTER – Rabbi Steven Lewis said he feels as if he has come full circle when it comes to the reopening of Temple Ahavat Achim.
Like many others in the region, the Gloucester shul has been closed to in-person worship since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, and now the congregation’s leaders are making plans to reopen.
However, the spiritual leader says he’s now faced with a similar transition to the one he had 10 years ago in guiding the small Jewish community on Cape Ann, one that took a chance on a newly ordained rabbi fresh out of Hebrew College in Newton.
In 2011, as Lewis assumed his first pulpit, he led the more than century-old congregation in one of its first services in its brand new building after the old one burned down on the same spot at 86 Middle St. on Dec. 15, 2007. The Conservative congregation had spent 56 years in the former First Parish Church.
After the fire, the congregation vowed to rebuild in the same downtown location, even though the site had constraints. The new temple was sleek and modern, but it only had 12 parking spaces and members still had to battle beach traffic on Saturdays when the bridge opened for boats sailing between the canal and the harbor.
But Lewis navigated those challenges, and after 10 years as its rabbi, the congregation of just under 200 families renewed his contract as of July 1. Like other events at the temple during the pandemic, the annual meeting where Lewis was celebrated was held virtually.
“We surprised him with a video,” said past president Miriam Weinstein of Gloucester. “About two dozen people made short videos saying what they appreciated about him. It was a pleasure to do it, a pleasure to watch, and he was so moved.”
“It feels like a circle in many ways,” said Lewis of the reopening 10 years after he started in Gloucester.
Lewis, 57, grew up in Newton and later moved out to the Bay Area for 10 years. He spent a couple of year-long stints in Israel and said he has moved around a lot. While out in California, he earned a master’s degree in environmental planning, and he has worked in education and environmental education. His love of storytelling, community, the environment and place – tenets central to Judaism and the Torah – led him to rabbinical school in 2005 and he was ordained in June 2011.
He was a student rabbi in Rockland, Maine, in 2008 before becoming Ahavat Achim’s full-time rabbi. He and his wife, Laura Wiessen, who serves on the Gloucester School Committee, have two children, 6 and 8.
About 10 years ago, the congregation had been allowed to enter the new building in the spring, Lewis said, and he recalls the service he presided over was one of the first times most of the members had met him.
“So, they started with a new rabbi and a new building,” said Lewis, whose predecessor at the time of the fire and during the rebuilding was Rabbi Samuel Barth, who spent five years leading the congregation before his departure in 2011.
Barth had succeeded Rabbi Myron S. Geller, who served the congregation for 40 years from 1976 to 2006, a tenure memorialized by a bronze plaque salvaged from the former temple that is now mounted in the new building.
Weinstein said Lewis, with his warm personality and respect for the traditions of the congregation, has proven to be a good fit in this somewhat remote fishing, tourist, and bedroom community 35 miles northeast of Boston.
“From the beginning,” Weinstein said, “he appreciated the special personality of this congregation. And, because we are the only synagogue on Cape Ann and several towns surrounding Cape Ann, we have to be welcoming to everybody, and that’s been our tradition and that’s been our pleasure all along, and he really fits in with that model very well and he has helped us to continue that.”
Weinstein said Lewis has a good relationship with Phoebe Potts, who runs the religious school and adult family learning program.
“They have been able to engage young families and attract young families and Phoebe does the most creative job,” Weinstein said, “and the two of them are a terrific team.”
During the pandemic, Weinstein said Lewis helped the congregation move nimbly, providing lots of virtual programs, engagement, and involvement. “And now we are doing a very careful reopening of the building, so we feel like we are really in a good place as a community and we are very thankful for his leadership,” she said.
Lewis said the congregation had gone through an unsettling period prior to his arrival, starting with the transition in rabbis and then the fire.
“They had been through so much transition and … they were just gasping for air and they had a few things that they wanted me to figure out,” Lewis said. “They just needed some stability.”
Lewis said initially the congregation envisioned he would serve in the interim for two years.
“Two things became clear,” Lewis said, “One, that I had a good relationship with the community, that I was not going to be part of the upheaval; and two, they were absolutely exhausted.” The idea of the congregation forming a rabbi search committee was like someone finishing a marathon and then being told another one was starting in 10 minutes, he said.
“They really just needed three years to catch their breath,” said Lewis, who said he needed three years to figure out what he was doing as well.
“But, interesting now, we are kind of coming back. It’s sort of a circle because now, of course, we are coming back into the building and we are trying to figure it out, it’s sort of a new beginning.”
Lewis has been saying since the pandemic shutdown that the congregation is returning to the old normal, that “this is going to be a transformative moment.”
In-person life is slowly returning to a temple where the ever-present sound of gulls cawing can be heard through the open windows in the sanctuary and the social hall.
An ice cream social held in the parking lot on June 13 gave members and kids a sweet taste of what it’s like to be together again. The first in-person minyan for a Shiva also was held around the same time.
For Lewis, this is what the new temple normal might look like, with a Maariv service held outdoors in the mourner family’s backyard and a Zoom link with family from all over the country and Israel, where it was 3 a.m. at the time of the service. Zoom allowed family that could not make it in time to sit Shiva to be part of the service, but it was not something the rabbi would have thought of doing before the pandemic.
“So, it’s another period of figuring out who we are and how we move forward, so in some ways it feels like I’m right back to July of 2011,” Lewis said.