IIahy Irelander celebrates his bar mitzvah at Congregation Ahavat Olam with his parents, Rabbi Idan and Einat Irelander.

Spirit of belonging has spurred growth of new shul in North Andover

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Spirit of belonging has spurred growth of new shul in North Andover

IIahy Irelander celebrates his bar mitzvah at Congregation Ahavat Olam with his parents, Rabbi Idan and Einat Irelander.

When Rabbi Idan Irelander made the decision – along with five founding families – to open Congregation Ahavat Olam in July 2022, they did not expect it to grow at the rate it has.

As they prepared to open, he said all they had was a “vision, love and theology.” By the beginning of September, the pieces began to fall into place, and Irelander credits the larger community with making it happen.

The membership grew to more than 60 families, the leased space at 1600 Osgood Landing in North Andover was ready, and Torah scrolls, the ark, and other artifacts were donated by the closing Congregation Ansha Sholum in Lawrence. They even got chairs from a local church. Irelander wanted to hold the first hybrid service and his son IIahy’s bar mitzvah in the new space on Sept. 9, 2022. It was that night he nicknamed Ahavat Olam as the Shul@1600.

Ahavat Olam offers two hybrid Shabbat services a week that are open to non-members. While the Friday night hourlong service combines music with prayer, the Saturday morning Shabbat service and minyan are more traditional.

At a time when synagogues are seeing decreased membership across the country – with many closing each year – Ahavat Olam has grown to 140 members in a little less than two years, exceeding expectations. High Holiday services are currently held at the Unitarian Church in North Andover. Marc Freedman, founder and president of the congregation, said they are running out of space and are in the process of looking for a bigger one that can accommodate 500 in the sanctuary, a social hall, kitchen, and a larger religious school.

So why, when so many synagogues have closed or combined, has Ahavat Olam bucked the odds?

Irelander explained the difference between Ahavat Olam and other congregations. “We have one denomination. We practice one Judaism that transcends any single denomination, uniting people with various identities to celebrate the best of our traditions.” He added that “Congregation Ahavat Olam fills a much-needed void because it fosters an environment that creates a community of members we call family, free of judgement, void of prejudice, and inclusive. We respect every person’s opinion and ideology. You can’t fake that, it’s genuine.”

Members come from the Merrimack Valley and the North Shore, and from 17 states. One woman who had been a member of a synagogue on the North Shore for over 30 years joined Ahavat Olam. She told Irelander that no one at her former synagogue ever knew her name. When she came to a service at Ahavat Olam, there were members asking her to sit with them. “That is among the differences between us and other synagogues,” said Irelander.

Music plays an important role in Rabbi Idan Irelander’s services.

Irelander is a versatile musician and was a student at Berklee College of Music before first becoming a cantor and then a rabbi. “He brings in professional and world-class musicians for Friday night and the High Holidays,” said Freedman. While music is the basis of the Friday night service, on Saturday it is mostly background instrumental.

“Everyone is made to feel warm and welcome,” Freedman said. “I feel like I am home,” is a comment he said he hears all the time. He explains the authenticity comes from Irelander. “It is not an act, it is him, 100 percent.”

“There are no cliques here,” he explained. Asked if it will feel the same if the membership doubles, Freedman said, “I will be there to greet them with open arms.”

Although Reading’s Anne Schwartz and North Andover’s Marissa Leaversuch joined for different reasons, they both agree that it is Irelander who sets the warm, welcoming, and inclusive vibe of the congregation.

Schwartz has been a member of other synagogues in the area, but those communities were not the “right fit” for her and her husband, Yoav Shorr. “One wasn’t friendly, another was too big,” she said.

Schwartz, who teaches Israeli folk dancing in the same building as Ahavat Olam, decided to attend a meet and greet for the congregation in the spring of 2022. Impressed, she described Irelander as “warm, welcoming, and special.

“We love the music, the people we met were friendly, and it was an opportunity to get into something new and help build community,” Schwartz said. Her husband plays harmonica once a month at Friday night services in an ensemble Irelander organized. Schwartz got involved by organizing Israeli folk dancing for Israeli Independence Day.

Rabbi Idan Irelander (center) at his son IIahy’s bar mitzvah.

Leaversuch said her family have been members since the opening. Her son was scheduled to become a bar mitzvah and had been preparing with Irelander. “It was a no-brainer to follow Idan,” she explained. “His approach to incorporating music into the service, and his indescribable warmth and welcoming persona was important to us.” Her son had his bar mitzvah a couple months after Irelander’s son, and she looks forward to her daughter’s bat mitzvah in January. Her younger daughter attends the Hebrew school.

Idan’s wife, Einat Irelander, is the director and teacher at the Hebrew school. Irelander teaches the 8th grade through high school, once a month. For this congregational year (Sept. 2023 through July 2024), Ahavat Olam had ten bnei mitzvahs scheduled, with five still to come over the next few months. Freedman said they already have 11 scheduled for next year.

Education isn’t limited to children. Irelander holds a b’nai mitzvah class for adults on Mondays and an adult education Wednesday morning class on Zoom that currently has 10 students. “When I teach, I learn,” he said.

Holidays are special for Ahavat Olam. In addition to the High Holidays, which are now held at the Unitarian church because of space, the holiday celebrations help foster community among members, according to Irelander.

Both social action and social events help foster that connection, according to Freedman. He said 15-20 Ahavat Olam members serve food at Cor Unum Meal Center in neighboring Lawrence once a month. On the social side, 10 members went to Tuscan Kitchen in Salem, N.H., to make pizzas, and had a paint night at Painting with a Twist in North Andover. Through these activities, congregants make connections with each other, he said.

Freedman also sends out a weekly newsletter, listing Zoom links for services, congregation news, and activities on Friday mornings to about 1,000 subscribers. Θ

For more information visit ahavatolam4all.org.

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