Newcomer Darchei Noam Makes its Presence Felt

From left: Rabbi Danielle Parmenter with Hazzan Arlyne Unger. Photo by Jon Marks

Jon Marks

When the doors to nondenominational Darchei Noam opened in Ambler in July 2021, no one knew what to expect.

But in Rabbi Danielle Parmenter’s mind, it would be a synagogue welcoming to all, regardless of race, creed or sexuality, where you didn’t even have to be Jewish to join — a place for those simply looking to feel a part of the community.

The verdict is in: This is it.

“I visualized something that was thriving, inclusive, heart-centered and spiritually infused,” she said during a break on Teen Chayim night, where kids from seventh to 10th grade get a Tuesday night dose of Jewish education. “The synagogue really started as a breakaway from another synagogue, but now it’s so much bigger than that.

“We’ve drawn so many new people seeking a different type of community. A radically inclusive community. That means the barrier for entry is incredibly low, but the bar for engagement is incredibly high.”

Rabbi Danielle Parmenter. Photo by Jon Marks

But you don’t even have to walk through the walls to participate. With a segment of membership being older, classes and services are hybrid, meaning you can come in person or participate online. That goes for those who don’t live in the area, since members Zoom in from New York, New Jersey, Florida, even California.

“We do a lot of adult education,” said Parmenter, who came over from Congregation Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, where she worked with some of Darchei Noam’s staffers. “A lot of our members are older and live farther away or don’t drive at night … They’re so grateful to be part of the service, and we wave to them on Zoom.”

The kids in Sherrie Klein’s Teen Chayim program, however, don’t have that option. A longtime Jewish educator who still considers herself “retired,” she couldn’t resist when Parmenter reached out.

“l love working with the teen population,” said Klein, who has 37 students. “Our goal for seventh graders is to engage the kids Jewishly, whatever that means. So, we’ve taken them to a Horsham settlement camp and to the Rose Bridge Farm & Sanctuary.

“Eighth grade is looking through the Torah through adult eyes. Did God regret creating humanity as might be demonstrated in the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah?

“And over the summer, our ninth and 10th graders studied online at the Mussar Institute, which has a different approach to Jewish values. It’s very reflective and spiritual.”

Some students are on the verge of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, which is where Hazzan Arlyne Unger comes in. Besides preparing them for that moment and aiding younger kids in Sunday school, she works in tandem with Parmenter during services.

Rabbi Parmenter in class with students. Photo by Jon Marks

“Congregants love it when the kids do things,” said Unger, who had tired of the 90-minute commute to Beth Am Shalom in Lakewood, New Jersey, and was looking for something closer to home. “We pride ourselves [on] having a lot of participation from
the kids.

“We just had a fourth- and fifth-grade Friday night service, and we’re going to have the junior choir lead services and we’re having a Chanukah dinner for the Congregation.

“When Rabbi Danielle talked to me about the new shul, I said, ‘I’m ready for this challenge, I’m not ready to retire.’ This is where my heart belongs, and this is my family.”

Such feelings are shared by many congregants, which has grown to 235 adults and 105 children, starting with 4-year-olds through the Teen Chayim program. Instead of paying actual dues. Darchei Noam — the name coming from the section in the service where the Torah is returned to the ark while Etz Chaim is being chanted — asks members for
a pledge.

That can range from $18 to nearly $1,000, with most paying in the $400-500 range. But to make ends meet, they’ve also held several fundraisers, the most recent bringing in more than $3,000.

While that certainly matters, the focus remains on pursuing the synagogue’s ideals.
“When I came in, I said there were three things I wanted,” said Lynne Krause. who took over as president in August. “Community, connection and creativity. We’re just different. We try to include everybody, and we don’t have to play by the rules. We try to make it joyful.

That applies to Parmenter, a native New Yorker who moved to the area some 15 years ago, who delivers her sermons off the cuff rather than writing them in advance.

“I wanted to do a service that I actually enjoyed. I have too many colleagues who show up for Shabbat because that’s their job — and they’re miserable. I refuse to approach prayer that way.

“I tell people she is such a spiritual leader,” Klein said. “When she’s up there she feels the prayers and she’s dancing with the prayers. People love it.”

Jon Marks is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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