If you Google “Darkaynu,” you will see a listing for an organization at 2040 Street Road in Warrington. But if you click the website link and go to darkaynu.org, you learn that the “account has been suspended.”
A Facebook search yields a similar result. Darkaynu has a page. But it has less than 100 followers, and its last post came on May 25, 2022.
But despite some evidence to the contrary, Darkaynu is alive.
The nondenominational synagogue remains what it pretty much has always been — a small group that sees value in worshipping. The community started with 30 members in 2009, grew to about 60 or 70 at its peak in the 2010s and contracted back to its current total of 15. Several of those 15 are original congregants. All of them, just like in 2009, are empty nesters. And they continue to meet once a month for a Friday night Shabbat service.
“We’re a pretty cohesive group. We’ve gotten to know each other well. We enjoy each other’s company,” said Mark Feingold, a longtime member and a Doylestown resident.
In addition to the Shabbat service, members meet once a month for a Torah study. Both take place inside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrington, where the synagogue rents space. But Darkaynu does not have a rabbi. Its last one, Rayzel Raphael, left in 2021. Now Feingold and another member, Jay Burstein, lead the services.
“The problem of having too small of a group is you don’t have enough resources over time. We could not afford to keep a rabbi,” Feingold said.
But for Feingold, Burstein and others, the small congregation, light schedule and limited resources are not deterrents. Feingold, 67, participates because, as he explains, “I’m Jewish, and I believe that religion offers learning, spirituality, a sense of closeness with God.”
Burstein, 74, mentioned similar reasons for staying involved. He also offered another, more existential, motivation: “As we get older, we tend to think more about God and the afterlife, things like that.”
Both men like that Darkaynu is a smaller, more intimate community. When they walk in the door for Shabbat services, they see their friends. The congregants go out socially, too, even when there’s no Jewish activity involved. Burstein said that, “The people in the group really enjoy being together.” And, according to Feingold, “It’s a very comforting group. There’s virtually no confrontation.”
“It’s just that we’ve known each other for so long,” Burstein added.
All of those qualities were present from the beginning, according to the rabbi who started the congregation, Jon Cutler. In 2009, Cutler had just returned from a deployment to Iraq as a chaplain for the Army. After serving in a war zone, Iraq’s Anbar province, Cutler wanted “a more intimate (synagogue) community than to deal with boards and politics.” He started Darkaynu with people who knew him from his previous post at Tiferet B’Nei Israel in Warrington. Members viewed their new community as a chavurah, or a smaller group that still engages in congregational activities, like services.
But the gatherings, as Cutler described them, were “more lay-led.” Services featured a live band with musicians and singers. Communal outreach projects included collections for a local food pantry and an effort to house six different homeless families in Bucks County. At the once-a-month Shabbat dinners, people set up chairs and provided homemade dishes. A craftsman in the community, Harvey Soll, built an ark from scratch. His wife designed a Torah cover. All of the congregants pitched in to buy a Torah from another local synagogue.
“It was wonderful because people had say in it,” Cutler recalled. “People would not only commit financially but timewise.”
The rabbi, though, could only make a small salary from Darkaynu. He also had to work for the military and for Abramson Senior Care Hospice in Blue Bell. So, in 2015, he left to take a full-time job at Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The rabbi remains there, leading a congregation with more than 100 households. But he still marvels from afar at Darkaynu. He said that he wasn’t sure in the beginning if it would last a year.
After Cutler’s departure, Darkaynu tried to find new members, according to Feingold. But it did not have much luck. That’s why congregants decided to close the website. It wasn’t getting much traffic. But through it all, the existing members never lost interest.
“There’s a real longing for intimacy and community. This could be a model for that,” Cutler said.