MARBLEHEAD – There is no exact formula for becoming the ideal rabbi for a congregation, but over the last 31 years, Rabbi David Meyer seems to have come up with one that has allowed congregants to grow spiritually while connecting to a broad and strong Jewish community.
The soft-spoken Meyer, who grew up in Kansas and whose Midwestern roots go back to 1850, arrived at Marblehead’s Temple Emanu-El in the summer of 1992. Since then he has been known for his accessibility and kindness to congregants, and his passion for teaching Jewish children and adults. He was always the first to greet Hebrew School students on Sunday mornings in the temple’s parking lot.
Much of his teaching involved music. He was the first rabbi on the North Shore to play guitar while leading Shabbat services, which allowed him to walk along the bimah and make eye contact with congregants. “How do you lead songs?” he asked. “You don’t lead songs with a guitar, you lead songs with your eyes. And the same thing with worship: You make eye contact and invite people to join your space.”
That eye contact and Midwestern open-heartedness seemed to bring everyone in his temple closer. His Sunday morning classes brought grandparents, parents, and children together to hear the words of Torah. While other area rabbis historically focused less on community outreach, Meyer always was accessible to all congregants. He also has spent years to help build strong interfaith relations with other denominations, and served two terms as the president of the Marblehead Ministerial Association.
Now, 31 years later, Meyer plans to retire on June 30. “I’m taking a gap year,” said Meyer, whose future could include teaching and music. He plans to continue to live in Marblehead with his wife, Marla, and will spend more time with his two grown sons, Cory and Jeremy.
To say thank you to Meyer and his family, the temple has held several events leading up to Meyer’s retirement. This year, he played a concert with his longtime songwriting collaborator Jon Nelson at the Cabot Theatre in Beverly, and earlier this month congregants packed the temple to honor Meyer.
“With unwavering dedication, wisdom, and compassion, Rabbi Meyer has guided us through countless moments of joy, sorrow, and growth,” said Gail New, president of Temple Emanu-El. “As we bid farewell to a beloved leader, we cherish the countless lives enriched, the spiritual bonds forged, and the enduring legacy he leaves behind.
“Rabbi Meyer’s retirement serves as a poignant reminder of the transformative power of faith and the immeasurable influence one individual can have on countless congregants and beyond. We extend our deepest gratitude for Rabbi Meyer’s profound commitment to nurturing our spiritual lives, educating our community, and sharing his musical talent.”
Judith Emanuel, a former temple president and executive director, also praised Rabbi Meyer’s impact. “He has been there for us as our teacher and spiritual leader; he has named our children, celebrated their consecrations, b’nai mitzvah, confirmations, and graduations,” she said. “He has officiated at the marriages of our loved ones and buried so many of our own. He has provided guidance and comfort, lessons and insights with knowledge and warmth.”
Meyer’s youth in Prairie Village – a suburb of Kansas City – was anchored in Jewish life. His bar mitzvah was held in the same Kansas City temple where his great-grandfather celebrated his bar mitzvah, and where his grandparents and parents had been confirmed.
As a teen he began to play guitar, and joined the Reform Jewish youth movement, NFTY. There he seemed to find his calling – connecting youth to Judaism through music and prayer. By high school, he was hopping onto a bus or train almost every weekend to cities such as St. Louis, Omaha, and Denver to help lead the music at NFTY weekends – bringing Jewish youth together for music and prayer.
In high school and college, he went on to become a Jewish camp song leader in Colorado and Los Angeles. Along the way, he became close friends with the late Debbie Friedman – whose melody of “Mi Shebeirach,” the prayer for healing – is sung at hundreds of Jewish services every Shabbat. He also played a gig with the Jewish songwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
His outreach continued in college, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in music from the University of Kansas. By then, he decided to combine his greatest passions – music and Judaism – and become a rabbi.
“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,” said Meyer. “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.”
By 1980, Meyer had enrolled at Hebrew Union College to become a Reform rabbi, and was attending the school’s Los Angeles campus. There, he reconnected with Marla Pepper, a UCLA student whom he had first met at a Jewish youth group event in Colorado. The couple began to date in LA, where she was a history major, while Meyer was in rabbinical school and traveling to his student pulpit in Calgary, Alberta. They married in 1984, and in 1986, moved to San Francisco, where Meyer had accepted his first clerical position at Congregation Sherith Israel – a Reform temple with over 1,000 families.
By 1992, Temple Emanu-El’s longtime rabbi, Robert Shapiro, had announced his retirement, and Meyer applied for the position. “When I first picked up a young rabbi at Logan Airport in Boston over 31 years ago, I observed that he had nice black curly hair, dressed nicely, had a warm friendly smile and a very pleasant manner about him,” said Jerry Somers, who was part of the group that had formed to hire the temple’s next rabbi. “He was to be the last of the 16 candidates – 15 had been passed over – considered for the position of rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and our search committee was both anxious and hopeful that he ‘would fit the bill.’
“Needless to say, Rabbi Meyer has exceeded our expectations. The enormous positive impact he has had on the congregation begins with his warm, friendly, and inclusive manner, which opens others to his efforts to educate, guide, and lead by example. His hallmark introduction of music and joy to our services has enlivened our congregational community … His pastoral services have helped so many.”
Being a rabbi, and connecting to people and to God, begins with passion, said Meyer. “Passion, joyfulness, inclusivity, welcoming – those are key elements, because those are things that you can’t fake,” he said. “So the passion that I have for Jewish learning, for Jewish observance; the inclusivity of a welcoming and safe community, and congregation, the joy of Jewish life … that’s teaching by example and, again, you can’t fake that but you can model it. And I think we created in the school and in worship, that kind of joyful experience of Jewish learning that many people of an earlier generation missed.”
Some 31 years after he arrived in Marblehead, Meyer now sees a stronger and more vibrant Jewish and interfaith community. That includes deep ties to local law enforcement, and clergy from nearby churches who have participated in interfaith Seders and trips to Israel.
Along the way, Meyer has continued to study a wide range of Jewish texts – from Torah to Kabbalah – and also found time to earn a master’s degree in theology from Harvard. In 2006, Meyer was honored by the Anti-Defamation League with the Leonard P. Zakim Humanitarian Award in recognition of his work of “building bridges” between differing faith communities. And over the last 15 years, he’s put out three albums of Jewish music with Jon Nelson.
When asked about the one attribute that drives his passion for the job, he pointed to the newness of each day.
“I like the fact that every day is different and you have no idea what that next phone call is going to be. That can be difficult and stressful, but it’s also energizing because every day has the potential of testing my entire skill set and intellectual background. ‘What’s this day going to require of me?’ And you never know the answer. You don’t know it from minute to minute,” he said.
As Meyer prepared to leave his pulpit after three decades, he anticipated the temple’s next rabbi will arrive with a similar passion but a different persona.
“Whoever succeeds me as a rabbi will hopefully have some of those same qualities and passions but they’ll be blended differently because we’re all different, and that’s good for the congregation,” he said. “There’s an element of anxiety about what’s coming next because we’ve had a good run. We’re very blessed. The synagogue is strong and vital and we have outstanding leadership. Our finances are OK. It’s a good moment to hand over the baton.”
Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org