When Darchei Noam opened in Ambler last summer, its leaders expected maybe 100 people to join the new community.
More than a year later, the temple counts 211 families as members.
Locals, and even some non-locals due to the hybrid reality of synagogues in 2022, like that Darchei Noam is inclusive to people from all demographics, geographical areas and Jewish backgrounds — from the curious potential convert to the weekly Shabbat attendee.
They also appreciate the temple’s informal approach to collecting money. Since there is no structure for membership dues, joining Darchei Noam is less an economic decision than a moral one. Residents join because they agree with the synagogue’s values.
“We were founding members because we felt it was so important. The values,” said Sandi Greenwald of Warrington, referring to herself and her husband Paul.
“I feel at home,” added Dominique Kliger of Blue Bell.
“I’ve never felt more connected to a Jewish community,” said Seth Pollock of Chalfont. “I’m more involved in this community than any synagogue prior, and I’ve belonged to a couple.”
Pollock, like many Darchei Noam members, followed Rabbi Danielle Parmenter from a previous synagogue. He refers to himself, his wife Lauren and their two daughters as “one of the founding families.”
“We decided to venture out on our own and create this community,” he added.
And Pollock means that both figuratively and literally. Like other congregants, after Darchei Noam leaders found their Ambler building, Pollock organized his schedule around helping them renovate it.
The Chalfont resident painted and helped with handiwork, among other tasks.
Such a collaborative effort was what Darchei Noam members were after; it was why they left their old synagogues, according to Pollock. And that early work on renovating the building together shaped the foundation for future synagogue activity.
As they went about it, anyone could walk in and pick up a paintbrush or screwdriver, and many did, according to Renee Strausberg, the community’s executive director.
“There’s more of an emphasis on transparency and on barrier-free Judaism,” Pollock said, attributing that last phrase to Parmenter and synagogue President Brandi Lerner.
As Pollock’s attribution suggests, even the most egalitarian communities need leaders; while Darchei Noam has “founding families” like the Pollocks, it also has a group of founding mothers in Parmenter, Strausberg, Lerner and Hazzan Arlyne Unger.
The women, like their congregants, came from other synagogues that had strengths but that weren’t quite like Darchei Noam.
As Lerner explained it, those other communities were affiliated with Jewish denominations, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, and were therefore obligated to enforce the code of their chosen label. They also implemented a dues model that became a requirement for joining the community, turning synagogue membership into an economic decision.
That structure, according to Unger, prevented people from feeling comfortable in their synagogue communities. Maybe they didn’t know enough about the religion; maybe their spouse wasn’t Jewish; or maybe they just decided it wasn’t worth the money once their kids grew older and didn’t need the preschool or religious school.
“Many Jews, while they may affiliate with a certain movement because that’s the synagogue they’re at, they may not identify with that movement,” Lerner said.
At Darchei Noam, they don’t have to; they just need a desire to practice Judaism, and this ethos has attracted a unique base of congregants.
Some are converting to Judaism while others consider themselves “Modern Orthodox.” Half of the members are between 35 and 50, while half are older than 50. Congregants come from 40 different towns in Montgomery County, 10 in Philadelphia and six in Bucks County, according to Lerner.
About a dozen families come from out of state. The hybrid element to services, classes and other programs helps with that. Lerner said it also helps that the temple is within walking distance of a train station.
“There’s no synagogue in Ambler borough and this is like a happening place now,” she said. “Great vibe and location to draw in from the places where we get our members.”
Darchei Noam, though, is not just a community of people rediscovering and redefining the faith side of their faith. It’s a functioning institution, too, with a religious school with 98 students, weekly Shabbat services that draw between 30 and 70 people and members who are willing to pay to cover costs like rent.
Pledges range from $18 to $3,600, according to Strausberg, and payment plans are available. Lerner said the founding mothers are already working on the budget for next year, and “we’re not closing our doors.”
“We’re a full-fledged shul,” Parmenter said. JE