Three years ago, Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, Delaware County, celebrated its 100th anniversary. But its second century got off to a weird start.
The pandemic hit, forcing members to leave the building and gather on Zoom. Throughout COVID, Ohev Shalom’s membership of around 230 families held steady. At the same time, “We’ve experienced some attrition in terms of energy in the building,” Rabbi Kelilah Miller said.
The rabbi, new to her role, is trying to bring that energy back.
“I’m really excited about what we’re going to be able to do in the next 12 to 18 months,” she said.
Miller graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote in 2013. Two years later, she took over as Ohev Shalom’s director of education, a role she served in until stepping up to spiritual leader in December. Miller replaced Jeremy Gerber, who left the congregation after 13 years and a suspension from the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly for sexual misconduct. The punishment stemmed from inappropriate Facebook messages Gerber sent to a congregant.
The new rabbi, who worked closely with Gerber, wanted the challenge of moving the synagogue forward in the wake of his tenure.
“I love the community. There is a strong sense of congregants being connected to one another. And there’s a lot of history,” she explained. “There are not many congregations left that are the older kind of congregation where it started out as a neighborhood synagogue.”
Since December, Miller has restarted a monthly Shabbat program that includes a Tot Shabbat, a potluck dinner, a service and ice cream. She also teaches a “classic rabbinic midrash class” once a month after Shabbat services.
“What I’m finding is, there’s a lot of curiosity, and once people have access to the ideas, they’re really eager to run with them,” she said.
The rabbi also is trying to find congregants who want to lead programming for holidays. One person can be the Purim guy. Another can be the Tu B’Shevat girl. The leaders would plan the events for those holidays and field questions about them. Miller believes that “community organizing can go a long way toward generating energy” and “good ideas.”
“One of the things I’m committed to is giving the design of what we do and the leadership of what we do to the community,” she said.
Like many synagogues today, Ohev Shalom is an older congregation. But “a number of our more recent folks who have been joining have younger children,” Miller said. The rabbi believes that they are drawn to the synagogue’s religious school, which has about 50 students, and its Tot Shabbat program.
Ben Miller and Jessica Troy, a married couple living in Media, joined six years ago and had a daughter during the pandemic. Troy credited Rabbi Miller, in her role as educational director, for making “great strides on bringing kids into the synagogue and helping them feel at home.” Those strides have helped make Ohev Shalom the synagogue that Troy had always wanted to join: a place with kids running around and toys all over the room during Tot Shabbat.
“It’s just adorable,” she said. “You have a sense that life is actually going on.”
The parents feel that way about their own lives, too. Before they joined Ohev Shalom, they were a “newly-engaged couple looking for a synagogue,” Ben Miller said. They went to a Saturday morning service at the Wallingford shul on a snowy day in 2017. People they didn’t know approached them and invited them to a Purim masquerade that night. They went, and “everybody talked to us,” Troy said.
“It felt like a place where we could start a community,” she added.
And they have.
The couple has had family members who have died, and fellow congregants have reached out. On one occasion, a distant relative passed away and enough people stopped what they were doing to make a minyan, Ben Miller recalled. He has joined several committees and now sits on the synagogue’s board of directors.
“Through those activities, I’ve found myself making close friends,” he said.
David Hoffman, the synagogue’s president and a member since 2000, remains a congregant even though his son is out of the house.
“I like the people. I have plenty of friends there. It’s a wonderful community,” he said. ■