Eric Settle, a Main Line Reform Temple member since 1973 and the synagogue’s president from 2014 to 2016, described Rabbi David Straus’ mindset as “pessimism wrapped around optimism.”
In other words, the rabbi was idealistic at his core but realistic on the surface. This approach made Straus perfect for some of the big challenges he faced at Main Line Reform, according to Settle. A $10 million capital campaign to renovate the building, an emergency fundraising effort after the pandemic broke out and a declining membership that ultimately rose again, among others.
“He always found a way to look at problems and find a way forward,” Settle said.
Straus announced his retirement from Main Line Reform on May 2, according to Davida Chornock, the synagogue’s director of marketing and communications. He served the Wynnewood temple for 24 years.
The Newark, New Jersey, native who grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, was only the fourth senior rabbi in MLRT’s 70-year existence. His retirement takes place on July 1. Rabbi Geri Newburge, also a rabbi at Main Line Reform, will replace her elder.
Straus is 65. Before coming to Wynnewood, he led Har Sinai Temple in Trenton, New Jersey, for 10 years. On a personal level, it’s just time, he said. There are other things he wants to do, he added. Straus already does work for Jewish organizations like the National Council of Synagogues and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“Retiring, I hope, is not dying,” the rabbi said.
Straus can be sure that his legacy at Main Line Reform will not die, according to congregants and lay leaders. He left Har Sinai in 1998 because it was about to embark on a move from Trenton to Pennington, also in New Jersey. The rabbi did not think he wanted to lead a multiyear fundraising campaign.
Then he got hired by Main Line Reform and had to do just that.
“Of course, the joke was on me,” Straus said.
But MLRT’s $10 million effort allowed for the renovation of its Wynnewood building, according to Settle. The process made the synagogue wheelchair-accessible and added new worship spaces. As Settle put it, the renovation brought Main Line Reform into the modern era.
Gordon Gelfond, who was on the search committee that hired Straus, credited the rabbi with revitalizing the temple. His wife Ann Gelfond, who was also on that committee, said Straus’ legacy could be summed up in a single word: “community.”
Once Straus led the effort to renovate the building, he made it his own. The intellectual rabbi became known to congregants as a soaring pulpit speaker and an inspiring teacher.
He pushed members to expand their Jewish practice into the community through social justice initiatives, interfaith partnerships and efforts to alleviate food insecurity.
“Congregants have followed suit and gotten very involved,” Ann Gelfond said.
During Straus’ tenure, MLRT’s congregation fell from 1,000 members to around 600, according to Settle. But it grew back to about 850. And when the pandemic threatened that growth, the rabbi once again had to raise money. Congregants contributed more than $800,000 to keep the lights on.
“That got us through the darkest year of the pandemic,” Settle said.
Since then, members have slowly started to come back for smaller services. This fall though, they will return in full for the High Holidays. The rabbi will not be there — but his legacy will be.
“I have left a congregation that is strong, vibrant and dynamic and will continue to be,” he said. JE