Bringing the Energy Back at B’nai Shalom of Olney

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The entrance at B’nai Shalom. Photo credits: Braden Hamelin

The energy is creeping back into the building at B’nai Shalom of Olney, with their new, young rabbi coming into his own and expanding upon programs lost to COVID-19, which is helping to increase attendance and bring a more youthful presence into the Conservative synagogue.

Rabbi Jesse Nagelberg has only been at B’nai Shalom for a year and a half, but he’s already making his mark with a special dedication to his congregants and a desire to give them a highly engaged and meaningful Jewish experience through a variety of ways, including new adult education classes and events such as one commemorating the Holocaust, both of which have been well received.

“Coming out of COVID, we made the decision to hire a new rabbi and we went through a strategic planning process with the entire congregation to see what we wanted … We really wanted to bring someone in who energizes our community and who could really bring a link from the kids in early childhood school up to our oldest congregants and our founders, one of which is still a member,” B’nai Shalom President Beth Eagle said.

In their search, they came across Nagelberg, who was fresh out of rabbinical school, in early 2022, and hosted him for an interview weekend where he interacted with the entire community. The bond was quickly evident, even over Zoom calls and with services done through computer screens, and a match was made.

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Since then, Nagelberg and Eagle have collaborated to incorporate a fun, engaging environment among the congregants to encourage them to come out and participate in community events and programs.

“One of the things that I’ve done is I brought back really fun kiddish luncheons on Saturday afternoons. I have a background in cooking and catering. When I was 16, I started a catering company,” Nagelberg said. “So, I said we’re going to have fun and people have responded to it. Our numbers on Saturday mornings have jumped by 10 to 20 people on a regular Saturday morning, [sometimes] even more.”

He added that they’ve begun making ice cream sundaes during the summer, which have been immensely popular and have the added benefit of giving people a time and place to come together and connect.

Nagelberg has also begun increasing the number of adult education classes offered during the week and making a shift to more in-person learning. The in-person classes have only been taking place for a few weeks as the congregation is finally recovering from the pandemic’s impact, and Nagelberg has been pleased with the turnout thus far.

 

Mural outside the education center at B’nai Shalom. Photo credit: Braden Hamelin

“I added three adult ed classes each week. And I just restarted that for this year … Today [Dec. 6] was the first time there were in-person adult education classes since before the pandemic. 12 people who were pretty comfortable on Zoom chose to come in and we are up to 14 this week. So, it’s good, steady progress, and people are happy to be in person, happy to be together,” Nagelberg said.

There’s also been an effort to bolster quality events for the congregants, headlined by a recent addition Nagelberg made with a Holocaust Remembrance Day program.

This spring was the first time the event was held, and its popularity has garnered plans for the event to continue next year as well. The event is a 24-hour marathon of reading the names of children killed in the Holocaust, with people signing up for different hour-long shifts to read names.

“I have the most beautiful emails of how meaningful it was to people. I think we’re going to go down to half-hour slots because there are that many people that want to take part … People love that event. It meant a lot to them, and we will hopefully do it forever,” Nagelberg said.

All these events, classes and an injection of youth have caused a shift in the synagogue and given it fresh life as the community is finding its footing again after COVID-19 and is now able to look toward the future.

The eye toward the future attitude is exemplified perfectly by the upcoming event the synagogue is having as it commemorates its 50th anniversary, Eagle explained.

“This winter, we’re going to have our future event and we are going to be looking to the future and [thinking how we’re] building our future and what is our place here in Olney and how do we secure that,” Eagle said.

B’nai Shalom of Olney has put a lot of work into its congregation over the past year and a half and it’s showing in their focus, busy schedule and enthusiastic response from the congregation.

“We’re just continuing to look for ways to bring new energy into this building … We’re bringing it back,” Eagle said.

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