Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh
Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh
Martin Kohn Special to the Jewish News

Temple Emanu-El welcomes native son as new rabbi.

If there is any truth to the old Yiddish saying about how we make plans and God laughs, then the Almighty has had at least a couple of good chuckles with Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh.

Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh
Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh

One occurred “pretty close to the end of my college career” when Zerwekh, a pre-law student majoring in political science at Western Michigan University, was preparing to take the LSAT exams.

The other has to do with how, as of July 1, Zerwekh, 33, became spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, where he grew up and where his mother, father and grandmother are members.

He wasn’t looking to leave his pulpit at Temple B’nai Israel in Kalamazoo. “In fact,” Zerwekh says, “I had just signed a new contract. Then I learned that Temple Emanu-El was looking for a new leader, and the chance to help shape the community that helped to shape me was too special to pass up.”

Growing Up At Temple Emanu-El

“My earliest Jewish identity was the ECC,” he says, of the Early Childhood Community, Temple Emanu-El’s nursery school.

Except for four childhood years when his family moved to Chicago, Zerwekh stayed involved with Temple Emanu-El, as a board member of the temple’s middle-school youth group and then its high school youth group. “I got some ownership over my Jewish experience, which was transformative.”

Becoming a rabbi wasn’t his goal in college. Although he was teaching Hebrew after school, “I was involved in the political world, interning for a state representative in Lansing.” Then, “there was this one week” where things began to change.

“I left this political fundraiser. I went to teach on a Wednesday and the kids I was teaching were able to recall what I taught them, and they were telling me what it meant to them. And I realized this is how I can have an impact on something I love and connect with.”

That was a start. “I love teaching but it’s only a piece of what I love.” As a rabbi, “I love the relationships,” he says. “I love helping Judaism be relevant for people, and I value being with families in their happiest times, but also in their hardest times. I connect with being a presence for people in time of need.”

Congregation president Marty Leibowitz says, “Rabbi Zerwekh’s personal connection to Temple Emanu-El is a plus, but he was the strongest candidate when we looked for a new senior rabbi, and we were most impressed with his abilities. He is working out great.”

Ben Taylor-Abt rehearses for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh.
Ben Taylor-Abt rehearses for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh.

Challenges And Opportunities

This is, Zerwekh says, a time of great challenges and great opportunities for synagogues.

“Temple life is different than it was when I was growing up,” he says. “There are more narrow-interest groups out there for Jews, so the temple, the synagogue, whatever you want to call it, is no longer the one-stop shop for Jewish engagement; which is good and bad.

“It’s good because it gives more voices and more opportunities for engagement, and bad because it’s forced congregations to have to figure out what they are, what they do, who they are and what, at their core, is the most important piece.”

Membership numbers for synagogues aren’t what they used to be. “Across the board, we’re all aware: It’s not just the Jewish community,” Zerwekh says. “All organized faith communities are seeing this down-tick in affiliation.”

Yet Zerwekh remains optimistic.

“I think there will always be a place for a strong and vibrant temple. What we do and what we look like may change, and I think that’s why my history with this congregation is so important, so helpful. Because I know what has brought us here, and I would never want to take us somewhere that isn’t authentic to who we, as a congregation, are.”

He favors embracing a larger community, not being afraid of other Jewish engagement groups but understanding how they can work together.

“I do believe there’ll always be a need for tradition, for places for authentic prayer, to teach our kids, to educate our children and to come together as a community,” he says.

Just as “belief in God is really powerful because you’re believing in something greater than yourself,” the temple offers something else that’s powerful: “That community that’s a family. I think there’s something Divine in a family of families.”

Zerwekh and his wife, Mayim, who is getting her master’s degree in social work, have a daughter, Liliana, 2. She is already enrolled in the ECC. “I can’t think of a better place,” Zerwekh says.

Complimentary High Holiday Tickets

In welcoming Zerwekh home, Temple Emanu-El is inviting the entire community to “be their guest” at High Holiday services and is offering complimentary tickets. Visit www.emanuel-mich.org or call (248) 967-4020 for information.