Kehilat HaNahar Celebrates a Decade with Rabbi Diana Miller

Rabbi Diana Miller (Courtesy of Kehilat HaNahar)

In March of 2011, Rabbi Sandy Roth, the founder of Kehilat HaNahar in New Hope and the only leader it had known in 17 years of existence, died. “The Little Shul by the River,” as it calls itself, referring to the Delaware, needed to find a new rabbi before the High Holidays.

The Reconstructionist temple got 16 applications for the open position, and its board of directors told its search committee to come back with three candidates. Committee members turned in four, telling board leaders that they had to wait for the last applicant to visit for her interview before making a decision.

As it turned out, she was their decision.

Rabbi Diana Miller, 54, and a resident of Lambertville just over the bridge in New Jersey, is now in her 11th year as spiritual leader at Kehilat HaNahar. The synagogue’s 135 or so families held a 10th-anniversary party for Miller on June 26 at its West Mechanic Street location.

They celebrated a decade in year 11 because it was hard to gather during the pandemic times of 2021. The 100-plus people in attendance were happy to overlook the technicality. In front of their building, they schmoozed, ate and listened to “lovely Jewish music,” said synagogue President Lynne Goldman, a member for more than 20 years.

“It was one of the highlights of my life,” Miller added. “It was so exciting to see the community come together like that.”

As Goldman explained, in 2011 the new rabbi was not walking into an easy situation. She was replacing the temple’s founder in Roth, who celebrated Chanukah, Passover and the High Holidays with early members before they even bought their property in 1996. And not only was Miller replacing Roth, but she was doing so after the latter had died.

But Goldman and other longtime members had a sense that Miller could handle the difficult task. During her visit as an interviewee, she was the only candidate who asked congregants about Roth and how they were feeling.

Late in that selection process, a questionnaire to the congregation achieved a 90% participation rate. Only one applicant got yes votes from every participant.

“Rabbi Diana was approachable and warm,” Goldman said.

And she remained that way in her early months on the job. She talked to people individually and in small groups; she listened and allowed them to grieve; and she helped reassure them that the synagogue would continue Roth’s legacy.

During High Holiday services that fall, Miller “blew us away,” Goldman said. In the middle of one service, the new leader was following the Torah around the sanctuary as people reached out to tap it. The prayer they were singing, as it often does during the ritual, ran out while the Torah was still going around.

Miller broke out in song and dance behind the Torah as congregants continued to tap it. Suddenly, they all joined her.

“It was this joyful energy,” Goldman said. “That’s what I always say about Rabbi Diana. I’ve never seen anyone so joyful.”

Kehilat’s second rabbi has made practical additions to the community, too. She has added adult study classes in Kabbalah, Chassidism and other subjects within the Jewish mystical tradition; she has introduced Shabbat morning services; she has even led efforts to raise thousands of dollars and feed the hungry with Centenary United Methodist Church in Lambertville.

Rabbi Diana Miller and the “Little Shul by the River Band” get ready for a performance. (Courtesy of Kehilat HaNahar)

But while those activities have added to the life of the synagogue, they are perhaps less important than her continued guidance of a ship that was already robust. Members, most of whom were there for Roth, too, just like and appreciate Miller in the same way.

Goldman credited the spiritual leader’s “emotional energy” for maintaining a harmonious relationship among board members. Congregant and New Hope resident Andrew Kaufman believes that Miller’s warm personality helps people get through life cycle events. Member and Lambertville local Anita Lerman praised Miller for keeping the community together during COVID by pivoting to the virtual space and still finding ways to gather.

“Rabbi Diana is just awesome, as was Rabbi Sandy,” Lerman said.

One of Miller’s favorite additions to her synagogue is the “Little Shul by the River Band” that she helped create. She feels excited about “all the music I’ve brought to the synagogue,” she said. And she intends to keep that music going.

She wants Kehilat HaNahar to continue to grow as a place to gather, as a center of learning and as a servant to the community in helping to feed the hungry, among other initiatives.

“I inherited a hamish place but I helped continue the tradition of being a hamish, welcoming, really special shul,” Miller said. JE

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