When Jerome P. David was 11 or 12 years old, he convinced his parents to join a synagogue. He doesn’t remember the exact reason why; he just remembers feeling strongly about it.
David’s Holocaust-survivor parents said yes, even though they had moved away from the religion after their harrowing experience.
“Parents of that background would not deny any wish their children had,” David said.
A couple of years later, the young boy was on the bimah becoming a man on his bar mitzvah day, and his rabbi told both him and the audience that, “We now know where our next rabbi will be coming from.”
“He saw it in me,” David said of his rabbi.
The thought had not yet crossed David’s mind — but it would go on to define the rest of his life.
David retired in June of 2021 after 47 years leading Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
After growing up and attending rabbinical school in Cincinnati, he arrived in South Jersey for his first job in 1974. Before interviewing with Temple Emanuel, he didn’t even know where Cherry Hill was, but then he never left.
David started his career with a two-year contract, but after those first two years, both sides ripped it up. David worked for the next four-plus decades on “a relationship of good faith,” as he described it, though he did, of course, get paid.
The young rabbi served as an associate for 10 years to his mentor, Ed Soslow. But when Soslow died in 1987, David stepped forward to carry on his legacy. He would remain in his senior position for the next 34 years.
David started thinking about retirement near the end of the 2010s, and by the summer of 2020, he was ready; he just wanted to announce it on his own terms. During a Yom Kippur service that fall, David gave a sermon about change.
“How we learn in the Talmud that that first step is always the hardest,” he said. “But I was ready to take that first step.”
His decision cleared the way for Temple Emanuel to merge with another Reform congregation in Cherry Hill, M’kor Shalom. Leaders at both synagogues knew that, in a time of declining synagogue attendance, they would be stronger if they unified their memberships of roughly 300-350 families each and their resources, according to M’kor Shalom President Drew Molotsky.
They just didn’t want to choose between their respective rabbis, David and Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel at M’kor Shalom, both of whom were well-liked. David’s readiness and willingness to take his first step toward his next chapter made for a smooth transition at the top of the unified congregation’s spiritual hierarchy.
But the rabbi emeritus will remain active in the congregational life of the temple he helped build. He’s going to teach a conversion class and a Torah study class, as well as the occasional religious school program; he’s also going to remain involved with the synagogue’s philanthropy.
At the same time, David is going to “retire to something,” he said. Actually, the rabbi emeritus is retiring to many things: his morning Peloton session, his hobbies of cooking and gardening and, most importantly, his wife Peggy and their three children and seven grandchildren.
Two of David’s sons live in the Philadelphia area, including Benjamin David, the incoming rabbi at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. His other son lives in North Jersey.
But as he enjoys retirement, David also reflects.
“Shalom means many things, but it means to be complete and to be whole, and that’s how I feel,” he said.
David’s name is on the education wing of Temple Emanuel’s building, which will become the home of the unified congregation. The rabbi emeritus opened the preschool at the synagogue and, to this day, it has a waiting list.
But his legacy is inside both the building and its many inhabitants.
David Chasen, Temple Emanuel’s president and a congregant for 26 years, said that David was good at the big part of the job, like running weddings, funerals and bar and bat mitzvahs. But it was the “series of little gestures” that made an impact.
After Chasen lost his grandfather, he was walking out of a meeting at the synagogue when David spotted him. He walked over, put his arm on Chasen’s shoulder and said, “If you need anything I’m here.”
Jessica Manelis, an Emanuel member for 30 years, remembered that when her mother was sick, David would call her even though she was not even a congregant. And he kept calling even when she was on the mend. JE