Even before the death in March of their founder, Rabbi Sandy Roth, members of Kehilat HaNahar, The Little Shul by the River, “had to do our own healing.”
In the last months of her battle with cancer, “Rabbi Sandy was still with us, but not always with us,” said congregation first vice president Jim Miller. As a result, congregants faced “a multitude of challenges on our own.”
Now the synagogue in New Hope, Pa., has begun “a new era.”
Rabbi Diana Miller (no relation to Jim), recently ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., assumed her formal duties on Aug. 1.
“We are no longer on our own,” said Jim, a New Hope resident who headed the five-member search committee. “We still deeply miss Rabbi Sandy, but now we have a spiritual leader.”
He said that some members thought the unusually large pool of applicants was due to the fact that Roth’s illness attracted attention; others, he said, believed that the word was out that New Hope “was simply a wonderful place to be, and the synagogue enjoys a nice reputation.”
Rabbi Miller certainly thought so. “I’m astounded at the beauty of the land,” she wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “New Hope is a wonderful place to live and visit…. The building and land of KHN are also beautiful and heimish.”
Even before she visited, she said, “the idea of a little shul on a river was enchanting [and] a sweet idea of Kehilat HaNahar lived in my imagination.”
After her first interview and spending a Shabbat in New Hope, “what really attracted me to KHN was the congregants…. I felt excited by the people and their enthusiasm for and commitment to their community.”
For the congregation, it was her “unique set of qualities and sensibilities that matched up with ours” that distinguished Rabbi Miller, said Jim.
That set includes the concept that the synagogue “be a home not only for members of the congregation but for other people who may not be welcome elsewhere,” said Jim.
Roth, who founded KHN while an RRC student in 1994, said in a phone interview with NJJN just weeks before her death that she was proud to have created an inclusive community where interfaith, interracial, and gay and lesbian families felt welcome.
Rabbi Miller wants to uphold that legacy.
“I believe that KHN is a very unique place, filled with diverse, open-minded Jews and non-Jews for whom being part of a strong Jewish community is paramount. The presence of children of all ages, adults of all stages, as well as a strong welcoming of LGBT and interfaith families helped me to see that this community lives its beliefs,” she wrote.
She said she also feels from the members “a hunger to learn Torah and to serve as agents of social justice as well as to express creativity and generosity.”
The committee was also attracted by Rabbi Miller’s experiences outside the rabbinate.
In addition to a master’s degree of Hebrew letters from the RRC, Rabbi Miller earned a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies from Barnard College and a master’s in social work from Hunter College. She has experience in pastoral care, education, interfaith work, and community organizing in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Bennington, Vt. She is also certified in yoga instruction.
Rabbi Miller also came to the rabbinate from the “outside.” She grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where she was raised “in an assimilated family.” They belonged to a Reform temple, she said, but she did not have a bat mitzva, learn Hebrew, or practice Shabbat.
After discovering a community of “active Jewish young people,” at Barnard, she joined a Conservative egalitarian shul in Brooklyn.
Her draw to Reconstructionism came from RRC rabbinical students she met when she was studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. Her “eclectic orientation toward Judaism,” she said, “works well within the Reconstructionist movement.”
In considering her plans for Kehilat HaNahar, Rabbi Miller said her focus will be “to help strengthen the Shabbat community. We can build on what already exists and expand our Shabbat practice to include more music and Saturday morning services as well as a lively, participatory kabalat Shabbat.”
She said she also wants to see programs that engage congregants “with the outdoors, the arts, and continued work in interfaith circles” in addition to classes on Jewish learning.
Jim said that in the months since Roth’s death, congregants have “learned so much about ourselves and achieved a greater awareness” of the synagogue’s needs, strengths, and direction. Rabbi Miller, he said, will be a welcome presence going forward. “She has infectious enthusiasm. People want to listen to her and talk to her. She is accessible and incredibly bright, and she has a warmth that is important to us.”