One of the longest-serving faith leaders in Marblehead history, Rabbi David J. Meyer is retiring from Temple Emanu-El this month after serving there for 31 years.
His advice to his successor?
“Continue building on the strength of this inclusive, joyful community and have the courage to try new approaches,” Meyer said. “And make sure you look at the ocean every day.”
Meyer, 65, arrived in Marblehead in July of 1992, a fresh-faced rabbi who grew up in a suburb outside Kansas City. He and his wife, Marla, settled in Marblehead and raised two sons. They plan to stay in town.
Looking back at highlights over his long career here, Meyer doesn’t hesitate to list his first one.
“When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, the team sent the trophy to every town in Massachusetts. Temple Emanu-El was the Marblehead site.”
When asked how the temple was chosen, he answered with a laugh, “We had connections.” Meyer is a big baseball fan who wrote and read essays for the NPR program, “Only a Game.”
Other highlights include leading two interfaith trips to Israel with now-retired Rev. Dennis Calhoun at Old North Church.
“Also, writing our own torah scroll in 2015 for the temple’s 50th anniversary,” he said.
Meyer, who taught himself the guitar at age 14, has released three studio albums of Jewish music with Jon Nelson, who performs with Meyer at temple services.
There were what Meyer called “watershed moments,” too, like leading an interfaith vigil at Seaside Park after 9/11.
Over the decades, Meyer estimates that he led 1200 b’nai mitzvah services (for Jewish children turning 13), as well as several hundred each of baby-namings, weddings and funerals.
Challenges & opportunities
Meyer reflected recently about challenges that became opportunities over the decades.
“We had to reimagine how the temple operates in many ways, including funding,” he explained.
“We were the first synagogue in the area to move to a pledge model and we’re never going back.”
In an effort to boost membership, Emanu-El decided in 2014 to scrap its annual dues and encourage people to donate what they could afford. It has been a resounding success, Meyer said.
The temple also reworked its programming model by creating a more grass-roots approach. Meyer chose to lead his “congregation not based on what I think people need, but on what they want,” he said.
And one thing members wanted was Meyer to sing and play guitar more.
“It reignited a spark for me,” Meyer said with a smile. “Music transformed the congregation from a passive style of worship to a very participatory style. Attendance grew immediately – not just in services but in programs, social action, education. Engagement has gone up in a transformative way.”
‘Most menschy guy’
Claudia Kaufman and her family joined Temple Emanu-El nearly 20 years ago when they moved to town. She quickly became involved in the temple and eventually served as president. She and Meyer have worked together closely over the years.
“He’s just a good guy,” she said. “He’s the most menschy guy you’re ever going to meet. And he’s very knowledgeable, very scholarly. He always put the congregation first.”
Kaufman says Meyer’s successor will have big shoes to fill, but ”it’s an exciting opportunity for the temple to develop in new directions and provide new services. There are some congregants who have only ever had Rabbi Meyer as their rabbi.”
Meyer says after June 30, he’ll take a “gap year to catch my breath, step back and not move from this to another job. I want to discover ‘What do I miss? What am I longing to do?’”
He knows the year will include study, creativity (more music), fitness and community involvement.
“I’ve already spoken to town leaders about how I can contribute to the town. I want to give back.”
Meyer is staying on at Emanu-El as a rabbi emeritus, but it will be a low-key position, he says, to give his successor the room to create his own leadership style. An interim rabbi will serve for one year as the temple searches for Meyer’s full-time replacement.
Meyer’s last official day is Friday, June 30, when he will lead a Shabbat service.