New seating in the sanctuary
New seating in the sanctuary

As the only Reform congregation in their area, Oak Park-based Temple Emanu-El is taking strides to connect and inspire the Jewish community.

In the midst of many positive changes and new initiatives underway, Temple Emanu-El aims to stay true to its overarching goal: to try and “repair the world through the Jewish lens.”

“The temple has always seen itself as engaged with the world around it,” explains Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh. “The times we’re in dictate action. Our congregation is welcoming the opportunity to engage.”

Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh
Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh

As the only Reform congregation in their area, Oak Park-based Temple Emanu-El is taking strides to connect and inspire the Jewish community. They’ve implemented racial justice training for members, completed new renovations in their sanctuary and are home to the Jewish Gay Network, which supports Metro Detroit’s LGBTQ+ community. 

Yet these initiatives are only the beginning of a myriad of programs being developed and rolled out by the temple.     

“I’m a leader who is showing people ways how they can do that,” Zerwekh says of repairing the world through the Jewish lens. “There’s so much going on right now that we feel like we can’t affect or have any real control over, except for our own personal action.”

Temple Emanu-El is starting by joining important conversations on race. They’re partnering with Detroit Jews for Justice to help spark and inspire understanding of racial biases that divide the world, particularly within the area. By working alongside leadership at Detroit’s Bethel Community Transformation Center, among others, the temple is part of a larger effort to build relationships between synagogues and Black churches.

“In a world right now that feels like we’re seeing a lot of hate speech, antisemitism and racism being brought to the forefront, it’s important that we understand what allyship can do in terms of strengthening our entire community,” Zerwekh explains. “Not just the Jewish community, but the Jewish and the Black community. It can help us interact with that problematic speech and become more unified.”

Using His Voice

Zerwekh says that’s one approach of his work as a rabbi and congregation leader, to address what the community is “ready for and calling.” The other, he says, is to use his voice in places where he finds himself “unable to use it.” This takes form by participating in a variety of local marches and peaceful protests, including to advocate for George Floyd and the NAACP.

“To be able to use my voice in the way I could and to be able to pray in that way has been very meaningful to me,” Zerwekh explains. “It’s meaningful to my rabbinate and to my community.”

The temple’s action and engagement in addressing social, political and cultural issues reflects in its membership growth, which has seen a 20% increase in two years. Previously unaffiliated families are now joining, which Zerwekh believes also stems from having a strong religious school shared with Beth Shalom. “This again speaks to that string through allies,” he says. “The congregations realized they were stronger together in educating the kids.”

Zerwekh says that because the congregation was the first of its kind developed outside of the city limits of Detroit, and the last remaining one in its vicinity, this has helped Temple Emanu-El establish itself as a key Reform presence in southeastern Oakland County. “It’s so powerful,” he says of that presence. “We’re setting ourselves up to be a center for the community to support various ongoing Jewish efforts.”

The updated ark with views of the Torah scrolls
The updated ark with views of the Torah scrolls.

One of Temple Emanu-El’s biggest endeavors is serving as the home for the Jewish Gay Network. “The leaders of the network were looking for a new home,” he says. When they approached the temple, Zerwekh said the decision was easy to make since JGN aligned well with the congregation’s overall mission of helping people connect with their Judaism.

“We are an open, inclusive community,” Zerwekh describes. “Being able to provide that place for JGN to land was something I feel very fortunate that we were able to do.” 

JGN co-chair Faith Robinson Renner agrees with the sentiment. “Temple Emanu-El has always opened itself for many types of worshippers and inter-religious families,” she explains. “Rabbi Zerwekh is also very committed to inclusion and social action.”

Updated Sanctuary

In addition to housing JGN, Temple Emanu-El is also focusing on revamping its own home by remodeling its sanctuary. “We brought our sanctuary more in line with how we pray,” Zerwekh says.  

The first step was to replace some of the fixed pews with movable seating, which allows for a bigger variety of prayer arrangements. Though the temple has been closed due to COVID-19, Zerwekh says that members who tune in for broadcasts have appreciated the new design.

Temple Emanu-El also upgraded every light to LED and removed the wooden doors from its ark, which allows for a better view of their handmade Torah covers. 

“Members of the temple created them for our Torahs,” Zerwekh explains. Now, the ark has frosted glass doors with some of the artwork that was on the old doors etched into the new, a bridge between past and present.

“You can see the beautiful history that’s in the ark,” Zerwekh continues. “It helps to bring a little bit of additional light into the space.”

With so many efforts in the works, Temple Emanu-El hopes to establish itself as a model in supporting the larger community in their efforts to engage with Judaism, regardless of through a Reform lens or unaffiliated lens. “That’s how the world is right now,” Zerwekh says. “Folks in their 20s and 30s are going directly to where the energizing Jewish content is.”

The temple wants to make itself a presence for anyone interested in positively influencing the world. “We’re making it clear that we are there to support Jewish learning and engagement,” Zerwekh explains. 

“We’re occupying a space to give people a chance to engage with Judaism in an unaffiliated way, but we’re also a presence for when they find the need for a congregation family.”  

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