A few months ago, I received an odd e-mail from the brother of a high school classmate. He explained that his synagogue in Traverse City, Michigan had found itself without a rabbi. He asked if I could help. My first response was, "There are Jews living in Traverse City?"
That initial e-mail message turned into several back-and-forth messages until we finally settled on a Shabbat that I could visit the congregation as a guest rabbi. There is something very special about small town Jewish communities in remote areas. The Jewish men and women living in the Northern Michigan town of Traverse City might not be active synagogue-goers or Jewish communal leaders if they lived in a more densely populated Jewish community. Like Congregation Beit Kodesh in Livonia, Michigan (the small synagogue I consult as Rabbinic Advisor), I was very impressed with the close-knit, do-it-yourself atmosphere I found at Congregation Ahavat Shalom in Traverse City. I found a similar positive "small shul" atmosphere as well at Sha'are Shalom, the fledgling congregation I led in Leesburg, Virginia during rabbinical school. Without the presence of a rabbi, lay people truly rise to the occasion and do what needs to be done.
Unlike larger congregations where the members might take it for granted that there are a plethora of Torah scrolls in the ark when they arrive at services, at Ahavat Shalom this past Friday evening I met synagogue president Fred Goldenberg as he walked into the Unitarian Universalist church carrying a large white duffel bag with the Torah inside. As soon as we started talking it occurred to me that the game of "Jewish Geography" can still be played no matter how far "Up North" one is in Michigan (Fred's son David went to college with me and was involved in Hillel).
A nice story about this Northern Michigan congregation and how they celebrate Hanukkah, featuring the Goldenbergs (at right) and our hosts Jay and Rachel Starr, was published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle. I hope this congregation, and other small Jewish communities in remote areas like this, persevere and go from strength to strength.