Warm and homey are two of the words Rabbi Jeremy Donath would like people to associate with his shul, Fair Lawn’s Darchei Noam. The shul was founded in November 2006 and has grown drastically since its humble beginnings in the basement of one of their member’s home, when they still struggled to get a minyan.
Mark Moerdler has been president of the shul since its June 2009 move into its current building on Alexander Avenue. He says, “We strive to create a non-judgmental, open place for people to pray in a modern orthodox environment.” Moerdler added that the shul strives to stay away from ‘shul politics’ and to create an enjoyable and welcoming environment. Rabbi Donath said, “We strive to be a place that is welcoming to every single Jew, where all different types of Jews feel respected and appreciated, and where everyone can blend together.”
Abe Adler, one of the founding members of the shul, is one of the shul’s vice-presidents as well as the gabbai. Adler uses his role as gabbai to welcome new people into the shul by giving them roles in the services. “I’m always happy to have new people to lead services, be Torah readers, or speak at seudat shlishit.” Adler adds that everyone is welcome to contribute in any way he can. It’s this appreciation for everyone that makes Dr. Orrin Davis say, “Every person feels like the 10th man. Everyone counts and everyone has a special role, and the shul can’t proceed without you.”
Rena Steinberg has vivid memories of her family’s first visit to the shul. Steinberg, her husband, and their daughter, then six weeks old, came to the shul on a rainy day six years ago. “On our first Shabbos at Darchei, six couples approached us and invited us for lunch. They said ‘You can’t walk home—it’s raining. Come to us for lunch.’” The Steinbergs have been active at the shul ever since.
Rabbi Donath came to Darchei Noam on a part-time basis four years ago, while living in Washington Heights. Shortly thereafter, he met his wife, and they moved into the community three years ago when the rabbi began working full time at the shul. Rebbetzin Shira Donath often works behind the scenes to help with the shul’s programming and youth department.
The rebbetizin will soon be completing an intensive two-year program in Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center’s U.S. Yoatzot Halacha Fellows Program. Upon completion, the rebbetzin will have the title of Yoetzet Halacha (halachic advisor), and will be able to advise and counsel women regarding the laws of Jewish family life.
Rabbi Donath strives to give shul attendees something to make their attendance worthwhile, and he values the impact a good drasha can have. He describes himself as a risk-taker as he is willing to talk about topics that others are not necessarily talking about. “I try to use current events and am mindful of making religion relevant.” Rabbi Donath hopes that his congregants take his words back home with them, and they foster conversation beyond the shul walls. “I encourage the community to engage in the conversation well after they leave the shul. The goal is to find relevance and meaning from the ancient Torah in our contemporary lives.”
Rabbi Donath’s approach seems to be reaching his congregants. Dr. Davis appreciates the rabbi’s drashas. “The rabbi gives great speeches. He shares thoughts that I would not have normally had and which provide intellectual stimulation.” Adler says the rabbi is, “motivating, clear and energetic.” He lists having been part of the rabbinic selection committee as one of his proudest contributions to the shul.
Darchei Noam continues to grow in terms of members. Moerdler said, “People move to Fair Lawn to join our shul, and people who were in the area who were not even affiliated have come to our shul.” Adler said, “People come to us, stay a few weeks, and decide to become members.” The shul currently has approximately 75 member families including 15 families who have joined the shul in the past 18 months alone. Due to the shul’s continuing growth, Moerdler will have to meet one of his goals for the shul, which is to expand the physical plant to accommodate even more members.
The members of the shul are diverse. Moerdler notes that there is no typical member as there is a wide range of age groups and shades of religion represented. Dr. Davis says that the despite the differences all the people get along, “which promotes good kavannah [intent].” Rabbi Donath strives to embrace all different types of Jews. “Tolerant, respectful, and welcoming to all is what we strive to be.”
One way in particular that the shul has reached out to its younger families was by implementing a plan to revamp the youth department. Some of the shul’s goals for the new youth department are to hire a new youth director, expand youth programming to Friday nights, and update the physical spaces currently used by the shul’s youth programs. Steinberg believes Darchei Noam is already a great place for children. “Everyone knows the children. Everybody is happy to help out with the kids and is comfortable with them. The shul is very child friendly and strives to get them involved and create programming for them.”
As Darchei Noam continues to grow and deepen its roots, it can be proud of what it has established to date. It is reaching Moerdler’s goal which is “to be a positive force in members’ lives.” Darchei Noam’s warmth, tolerance, and diversity make it such a place.
By Larry Bernstein