NORTH ANDOVER – For decades, synagogues have been closing, merging, or just hanging “For Sale” signs on their buildings.
A confluence of changes in American Jewish life – such as a high level of intermarriage and the ability to move to communities that were formerly restricted to Jews and other minorities – has contributed to lower affiliation at temples, say experts.
But in the Merrimack Valley, Jews and interfaith families are bucking that trend. For the first time in years, a new congregation will soon open in northern Massachusetts – just in time for the High Holidays. Founding members say the unaffiliated synagogue, Congregation Ahavat Olam (Hebrew for “Eternal Love”) is much needed, and will attract members who want to connect to Judaism through prayer, music and community.
“I have always felt that by classifying different streams in Judaism, we create an artificial division among Jews. Our people share one Judaism, one Torah, and one family,” said Idan Irelander, who will become the synagogue’s first rabbi. “At Congregation Ahavat Olam, we will practice ‘One Judaism.’ This approach transcends any single denomination and will unify people with varying identities while celebrating the best our Jewish traditions have to offer.”
Irelander grew up in Israel and is a professional musician who has played with some of Israel’s finest musicians. He first came to the Boston area 25 years ago as a student at Berklee College of Music, where he earned a degree in Composition and Film Scoring. He then worked as a song leader and music teacher at temples in Peabody, Malden and Andover, before earning his master’s in Jewish Education, and receiving his cantorial ordination from Hebrew College. He went on to serve as spiritual leader at the former Temple Shalom in Salem, and for the last 22 years served as the cantor of Temple Emanuel in Andover. Meanwhile, two years ago, he received his rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.
At Temple Emanuel, Irelander was well known for his emphasis on music and singing as a way to connect to God. He taught kids to read the Torah, arranged the music and performed several times a month at the temple. On Friday mornings, he led the temple’s preschool Shabbat program for the children that would include about 100 parents, grandparents and other relatives of the toddlers who would hum along with the Hebrew prayers. During Friday night Shabbat services, he played guitar and performed with fellow Israeli Gitit Shoval. He also arranged music for The Abbas and The Soul Sisters, two groups of congregants who played one Shabbat a month at the temple. And on the High Holidays, he brought in a group of Israeli musicians who played cello, flute, bass, violin, clarinet and piano, and performed traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur melodies.
But over the last year, Irelander and others, such as Emanuel’s former president, Marc Freedman, began to envision what a new synagogue would look like if it focused on music, Jewish identity and acceptance. “It’s about acceptance and identity of being Jewish. Whether you’re an interfaith family, or you’re somebody who wants to connect with being Jewish, there’s a spot for you. Come join us,” said Freedman, who is the founding president of Congregation Ahavat Olam.
Freedman expects the temple to sign a lease in an office park in North Andover soon, and open by Labor Day, with at least 60 families joining as members. “It’s very possible we could have over 100 by the High Holidays. We’ve had that much interest and that much of a commitment.”
Stephanie Gardner Ginsberg, another former Emanuel member, is also serving on Ahavat Olam’s founding board. “Idan was really the draw for a lot of us at the temple,” said Ginsberg, who added that annual dues for families would be $1,800, which could be adjusted in cases of financial need.
At this point, Irelander is the congregation’s only employee – with volunteers filling administrative positions in order to get the temple up and running. In addition to leading Friday night and Saturday Shabbat services (in-person and online), he will teach adult education classes, tutor kids for their bar and bat mitzvahs (there are already eight scheduled for the coming year), help shape its Hebrew School with his wife Einat, and be available at all hours to congregants.
Irelander is a versatile musician and arranger who plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and a variety of other string instruments. He reads Torah and is fluent in all six Ashkenazi tropes. He said the new congregation would combine traditional and modern melodies.
“We are not a renewal congregation, we are not one specific denomination. And in that aspect we are free to take everything Judaism has to offer – and it can be many, many different musical styles,” said Irelander.
For the High Holidays this year, Irelander plans to play guitar, and will invite professional musicians such as a group of backup singers, a soloist, a flutist, cellist, and pianist to perform the liturgy. Irelander believes music and prayer allow people to access powerful personal experiences: “It’s almost like you pray twice: Once you pray, and the other time, the music prays for you,” he said.
Which brings Freedman, the congregation’s president, back to why the temple’s founders chose Irelander as their spiritual leader.
“He’s magic. Music is a universal language and Idan has the ability to bring people in, through his spirit, through his style, and compassion to get people excited about being part of something,” said Freedman. “It’s not just about listening to some guy sing, it’s being able to sing with him, and feeling it inside in such a way that you are so excited to just be surrounded by those who you are with. That’s what Idan brings.”
For more information about Ahavat Olam, visit ahavatolam4all.org