Renee Strausberg was 17 when her grandfather died. When she went to attend a shiva minyan, Strausberg was informed by her grandmother that she couldn’t be there, as her grandfather believed that women didn’t count toward the 10-person prayer quorum, or minyan.
As a consolation, Strausberg’s uncle and father created a space for two minyans: one abiding by her family’s traditions, the other inclusive of Strausberg so she could say kaddish for her grandfather. The gesture, though small, was, to her, transformative.
“From that point, I knew that A) I wanted to work in the Jewish community,” Strausberg said. “And B) I wanted to make sure that everybody was seen and heard and part of that community.”
Fast-forwarding from the 1990s to today, Strausberg, along with a small team of clergy and administrators, is pioneering inclusion in the Jewish community through the debut of Darchei Noam, a new, nondenominational synagogue opening in Ambler on July 1.
The shul is the brainchild of Rabbi Danielle Parmenter and de facto Darchei Noam President Brandi Lerner. Hazzan Arlyne Unger will serve as Darchei Noam’s cantor, and Strausberg will be the executive director.
For the team, the idea for a new synagogue came from the joint desire to think outside the box to meet the needs — both spiritual and physical — of community members.
As COVID-19 forced some synagogues to close and others to rethink their programming or become entirely virtual, for some, finding a congregation has become more than just searching for other Jewish within the neighborhood. An influx is looking for a spiritual home that is meaningful, not just convenient.
The reason for joining a congregation “shouldn’t be because it geographically makes sense,” Lerner said. “It should be because it’s a good fit for you and your family.”
Darchei Noam is guided by a clear set of principles to make meaning for its budding congregation.
“We’re based on four pillars, alphabetically: community, justice, kindness and Torah,” Unger said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that all these pillars are always visible.”
To accommodate the diverse needs of their new congregation, already numbering around 100, the Darchei Noam team has committed to making membership dues voluntary and becoming Keshet-listed as an LGBT-friendly synagogue, in addition to providing sensitivity training for staff and leadership.
Their building will include both a wheelchair-accessible entrance and bimah, and virtual programming will continue to be offered alongside in-person events.
In addition to “Teen Chayim,” elective-style classes and workshops for teenage congregants, b’nai mitzvah tutoring, and Friday night and Saturday morning Shabbat services, Darchei Noam will incorporate social action into its programming, working with local organizations to build community engagement.
For Parmenter, integrating social justice into spiritual practices presents a challenge she is still working through, but willing to take on.
“I really see myself as rabbi-as-pastor rather than rabbi-as-prophet,” Parmenter said.
She’s not planning on preaching about politics on the bimah. However, she also recognizes that members may want her to, as being politically involved may be a congregant’s way of putting their Jewish values into practice.
Parmenter wants to “validate activism as a spiritual practice” for her congregants: “I want to be able to create safe space for them to dialogue with each other that’s rooted in kindness.”
The words “Darchei noam” come from a phrase in the book of Proverbs that is used in the Torah service when returning the Torah to the ark. According to Unger, it translates to “pathways of pleasantness,” which the team believed encapsulated their core value: that all Jewish people should find the Judaism that feels most authentic to them.
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Cancer under a unique individual and as a real sweetheart she will be a good addition to her new congregation and she will be missed by ours I had the honor of working with her and let me tell you it was an honor and privilege working with such a talented magnificent person
Please please contact me ASAP
So excited for this