By Rabbi Charles Sherman
Over the last few years, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park has experienced significant growth. I know there are lots of reasons — our move to the Old York Road corridor, an inviting space, the demographics of the community, and a growing number of people searching for a place to call “home.”
Digging deeper, I think something else is happening here. In my opinion, part of the reason for our growth is that we are providing an authentic response to many people who are uprooted spiritually. There is a certain comfort level in allowing the past — the liturgy, words, melodies, rituals and ceremonies — to inform the present and the future.
The sameness brings a level of comfort to many of us. There is a peace that comes with the continuity — knowing that the prayers we say, the words we recite, the songs we sing, are the same or very similar to what our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents uttered.
I grew up in Philadelphia. My neighborhood, “D and the Boulevard,” was home to a traditional conservative synagogue, B’rith Israel, where my family belonged. And even though it is no longer a synagogue, to this day when I drive down the Boulevard and I see the building, I pine for those days. I don’t think it’s just hollow nostalgia. I can still hear the voice of the cantor, the sound of the shofar; I can remember the faces of my friends who would stand on the front steps of the synagogue. People wishing each other “Gut Yontif.”
Many of you, I imagine, understand my feelings and have your own warm memories of the synagogue you grew up in. While Melrose can’t recapture your synagogue of yesterday, we remain committed to tradition and rituals that for centuries have provided meaning to the Jewish people. Melrose understands simply because something was “yesterday” doesn’t mean it is irrelevant. We are dedicated to maintaining as much as possible this celebrated and sacred past, while at the same time engaging the present.
While acknowledging our beautiful past and present, we also look to the future. I am so proud and honored to be the rabbi of Melrose, and especially proud when people tell me how welcoming our community is, friendly and warm. And that warmth has made new people want to return time and time again.
My friend the late Leonard Fein writes about the importance of a synagogue community: “At times of a faceless community, where people still feel connected by a culture of reciprocal responsibilities… The importance of being ready, at any moment of any day, to be the 10th person in a minyan, to be the person who makes the difference in transforming an aggregation of people into a purposeful cohort.”
Rabbi Charles Sherman is the spiritual leader of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park and the author of The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak (Scribner/Simon and Schuster).