Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim opened in 1952 with 55 founding families and meetings in the Ardmore Women’s Club. Later that year, the first Reform synagogue on the Main Line brought on its first spiritual leader in Rabbi Theodore H. Gordon.
Of the four senior rabbis to serve the congregation in its 70-year history, three, Gordon (1953-1972), Rabbi Max Hausen (1972-1996) and Rabbi David Straus (1998-2022), served long enough to mark eras at the Wynnewood institution, which today gathers at its own building on Montgomery Avenue.
This is the legacy that Rabbi Geri Newburge, Main Line Reform Temple’s new senior rabbi as of July 1, is inheriting, and no one is more ready to take on the responsibility, according to synagogue members.
Newburge, 48, has already been with the temple for almost a decade, arriving in 2013 to serve as associate rabbi. She acted as senior rabbi starting on July 1, 2021, as Straus spent his final year on sabbatical. And Newburge is “a real person who you can have real conversations with,” said Amy Krulik, the synagogue’s executive director.
“She is a natural leader and really does thrive on feedback,” added Lori Robbins, the vice president of the synagogue’s board of trustees.
Newburge, for her part, is excited to become a senior rabbi for the first time. She was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 2003. Then she spent 10 years as an associate rabbi to Jerome P. David at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. After that, she served another nine years on Straus’ team.
But it’s not just the promotion and chance to lead that excite Newburge. It’s that she gets to do it at Main Line Reform Temple. She may have reached the point in her rabbinical journey where she has a long-term home; she also feels comfortable in that home.
“Even though I’ve essentially been doing a lot of it for the past year, the reality of it is sinking in,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful and exciting new chapter.”
Newburge is taking over an institution that does not quite face the same survival questions that many other synagogues battle today.
MLRT still has about 850 member families. Its building underwent a $10 million renovation under Straus that added new worship spaces and wheelchair accessibility. And it navigated the turbulent waters of the pandemic with another $800,000 capital campaign to keep the lights on.
The synagogue is also in good shape in its education wing. MLRT’s Early Childhood Education center is full for the coming year with 155 students. Its K-12 religious school has more than 300 students enrolled for 2022-’23.
This fall, Newburge and Main Line Reform Temple will open the doors for congregants to attend High Holiday services in person. They have not done so since before the pandemic in 2019.
“To be able to look into people’s eyes and be in community with them brings a tremendous amount of relationship-building, and that’s really why I became a rabbi,” Newburge said. “It’s harder to do that virtually than it is in person.”
Newburge’s vision for the community is of people getting together in the physical reality. When people think of MLRT, she wants them to think of peace, joy and love, she explained.
“And I think, from there, good things flow,” she added. “Education, ritual observances, life cycle events.”
Newburge knows that the synagogue does not need any major additions or renovations at the moment, so she is focusing on smaller but still important initiatives. Over the next year, she hopes to restore the temple’s Torahs and rework the post-b’nai mitzvah program to add a trip to Israel for ninth and 10th graders.
“One of the things I love about Main Line Reform Temple is there’s a culture of excellence, and that is something I feel is a part of who I am,” Newburge said. “We’re constantly striving to be the best that we can be.”
In many ways, though, their best just means a continuation of what they are already doing.
Newburge is “in tune with congregants and what our needs are,” member Jennie Nemroff said. The rabbi hosts a well-attended movie night at the synagogue, hikes with members on Saturday mornings in a local park and attends beer club events with them at area restaurants. At the same time, she officiates their weddings and funerals, always with a personal touch.
“We see her in all kinds of lights,” Nemroff said. “She’s human.” JE