Many synagogues are struggling to maintain, let alone increase, their membership, and those on the North Shore are no different. Michael Churgel, North Country Reform Temple’s interim rabbi, is bringing his 20 years of experience to revitalize the Glen Cove synagogue.
Churgel will stay on at North Country until June 2024, during which time he will assist the committees in finding a permanent rabbi.
The number of Jews on Long Island is shrinking, he said, partially due to the cost of living, which is causing people to leave. And there has been a graying of the synagogue’s membership. He is looking to the younger families to join and for its longstanding members to return.
Since he arrived in July following Rabbi Janet Liss’ retirement, Churgel has been sharing resources to create adult educational programs with rabbis Todd Chizner from Temple Judea in Manhasset and Rabbi Randy Sheinberg from Temple Tikvah in New Hyde Park. The three have been friends for decades.
“It’s a partnership,” Churgel said. “This eases the burden on all three of us. And I prefer to build bridges rather than to create opportunity for competition. The more we help each other to grow that helps us.”
Some of the new programs have been in person with others online. Churgel plans to bring in a scholar in residence in the spring to offer programs on the weekend at each of the synagogues.
Rhonda Baum, the vice president at North Country and a 15-year member, said everyone loves Churgel. They are drawn to the energy he exudes and his many new ideas.
Churgel said one of his main goals is to increase the number of young families among his congregation, which was lacking when he arrived. His introduction of tot shabbat programs has become popular.
The program is offered on the last Friday of the month, when the service is designed for children 6 and younger and their families. Tot shabbot, offered afterwards, includes a kid-friendly dinner. Churgel joins children in singing, and he also offers explanations of the prayers. Then, the Torah is taken out and everyone marches around the sanctuary with it.
“It’s the first time some of them have seen it,” Churgel said. “This inspires them to want to bring families in and it gets some exposure for the synagogue.”
Baum said she’s impressed with how well Churgel relates to children and everyone else. “He sits on the floor with (the children) and reads them stories,” she said. “And he’s got a great sense of humor and is very easy to talk to. He’s very warm and very caring. Rabbi Churgel is breathing new life into our temple.”
During Hanukkah, the Friday service was early, making it easier for families with children to participate in the dinner that followed, which included a bake-off. People voted for the best latkes, which Churgel said was fun.
But something else happened that night that he didn’t mention. A tree fell during the service knocking out the electricity. But the service continued, and later the dinner was held by candlelight, as was the contest.
“One of the great things about Rabbi Churgel is he wasn’t fazed by it at all,” said Jenny deBeer Charno, New Country’s president. “He trusted us that we would handle it. He rolls with the punches.”
According to deBeer Charno, there’s much to like about Churgel. He’s young, has teenagers of his own and is less political than his predecessor. Liss is one of the first lesbian rabbis in the Reformed Jewish Movement. In her 26 years at North Country, she was active in a variety of civil causes, whereas Churgel steers away from politics.
deBeer Charno joined the synagogue when Liss first came because she encouraged young families to become members. But as she aged, that changed, deBeer Charno said, and the programs offered were primarily for the benefit of older people.
“When young families came to look at us, they were like where are the programs for young families?” deBeer Charno said. “Rabbi Churgel is wonderful with children and has taken on programs for them. He’s fun and he goofs around with them.”
A few young families have joined since Churgel’s arrival. deBeer Charno is hoping more will follow.
“I will continue to try to promote a family-friendly atmosphere,” Churgel said. “And North Country embraces all people and is welcoming to LGBTQ plus. It’s actually the most friendly place I’ve ever worked in.”
The leadership is committed to team building and being team players, he added. “I haven’t seen any toxicity here. They say, ‘Let’s think outside the box.’”
The coronavirus pandemic affected North Country adversely. People stayed away. Churgel has been working to get everyone to come back, trying to convince them it’s safe.
“This place is very much a family. When separated it hurts,” he said. “People isolated for so long because of Covid. I want to bring people together to provide comfort and support.”
Churgel knows firsthand how hard isolation can be. Two years ago, his 80-year-old father died. Because it was during the height of the pandemic, sitting Shiva was held on Zoom.
“I like to give and receive hugs,” he said.“That’s what gives me comfort. When you have to do it through a computer screen there are emotions missing.”
People can come back now even without hugging, he said. His hope is the community will heal and a communal atmosphere will return at North Country.
“A synagogue, it’s a ‘beit kenneset,’ a house of assembly, a place for people to get together,” Churgel said. “You can do so much at a synagogue. It’s not just designed for worship.”
And a synagogue isn’t just a place for the people who are members, he said. It’s for the entire community.
“Interfaith is important,” Churgel said. “I want to meet different clergy so people can be brought together to learn about each other. I’ve already met the Presbyterian pastor and Baptist minister. And there are plans to do programming with Rabbi Huberman (of Congregation Tifereth Israel).”
What Churgel said he loves most about North Country is the people. They are friendly, loving and accepting, he said, and most importantly, look forward to new experiences.
North Country is offering hybrid services. Twice a month, the service is on Zoom, which Churgel says has some positives. The snowbirds can view the service every Friday night from Florida. Someone even viewed it while on a Caribbean cruise.
“Judaism is so home centric.To give them more opportunity to do something in their homes is wonderful,” Churgel said. “Light the candles, blessings over wine and challah bread, worship, it offers them more opportunity to do more Judaism in their homes.”