Small Shul, Big Vision

Rabbi Noah Leavitt joined congregation Netivot Shalom in June 2014.  He appreciates the congregation’s desire to intellectually explore Judaism  and that they are “not afraid to wrestle with hard questions.” (Melissa Gerr)
Rabbi Noah Leavitt joined congregation Netivot Shalom in June 2014. He appreciates the congregation’s desire to intellectually explore Judaism and that they are “not afraid to wrestle with hard questions.” (Melissa Gerr)

In December 2004, the desires of a small group of people in Baltimore to create a Modern Orthodox congregation at which they all shared a voice in shaping its vision came to fruition. Then, in June 2014, recognizing the need for a spiritual leader that shared its democratic ideals, Netivot Shalom and Rabbi Noah Leavitt found each other.

“Most important for us was a rabbi who shared our perspective in terms of participation,” said Joel Bader, 48, chair of the search committee and a founding member with wife Jennifer. “Someone dedicated to serving our entire community, not having an agenda … but really being willing to work with us and grow with us.”

Bader, who hosted services in his living room the first nine months before the congregation purchased its current space on Labyrinth Road in Pikesville, also cited allowing women and young children to participate and a willingness to discuss any issues that arise as a group as important hallmarks of the Netivot Shalom ethos.

Susan Coleman, 63, said she and her husband, Jeffrey, belonged to a large synagogue for a while but found themselves wanting something smaller, more intimate and less formal. She added, “We had become more observant … so we were looking for something that would be a more Orthodox chevrah than we had had before.”

A completely volunteer organization, besides Leavitt, its congregants offer many different skills, said Coleman. Some regularly read Torah, some lead services, and others are on the house committee to make sure things run smoothly behind the scenes.

“Everyone appreciates everyone’s efforts,” said Coleman, who is currently the board treasurer of the approximately 50-member congregation. Netivot Shalom is small enough to feel “like extended family.”

Dan Arking, also a founding member with wife Ronda, said, “It was getting to the point where the younger members had more questions, they were setting up first homes, there were life events, they were feeling the need for a rabbi.”

Arking said the founding members jumped on board with the idea, recognizing there was a limit to what a nonpaid group could provide for the congregation.

“Having a representative for the synagogue is hopeful,” said Arking, who is also pleased that his three young sons are able to participate in services in a meaningful way. “Meeting the needs of counseling and other questions. If you want the synagogue to grow it’s helpful to have a person thinking about the shul full time — the programming, children’s groups. That was a big motivation for us.”

Leavitt, 28, said, “It’s been a change” to come to Baltimore as a native New Yorker. “But a positive change. The community’s been warm. … I’m not sure I’m going to become a Ravens fan anytime soon, which is a bit of tension with my congregation, but other than that … .” He ended with a laugh.

Judy Floam, also a founding member and current board secretary, appreciates that the congregation is “women friendly,” she said. “We have our mechitzah, which is kosher but not any higher than it needs to be.” Citing more examples, she added, “During Simchat Torah, women get to dance on their side of the mechitzah. Before we had a rabbi, and even now, some of the d’var Torahs are given by members, and that can be men and women equally.”

Floam also appreciates the congregation’s dedication to social justice. They’ve maintained a vegetable garden on the grounds for four years, and part of the harvest goes to the weekly Kiddush and the rest is donated to Ahavas Yisroel for Shabbat packages delivered to those in need.

In a leader, Floam wants “someone to give us intellectual exploration of issues in Judaism” and someone who is “welcoming and who would participate in outreach to the community.”

“In the long term I hope to help the community grow,” said Leavitt, “and show what a warm modern Orthodox community can look like,” in addition to providing pastoral leadership and religious guidance.

He also appreciates that the congregation is “not afraid to wrestle with hard questions.”

“I think he’s doing a great job of connecting with the congregants. … He’s really growing into the position,” said Arking. “He’s young and Baltimore can be a challenging place, but he’s hit the ground running. He’s having more of a presence outside the synagogue and appealing to a wider group to come and see what we have to offer.”

“It is a very committed Orthodox shul,” said Leavitt, “but they’re also looking for innovative ways to enhance our learning and our spiritual lives.”

An upcoming series he initiated explores the intersection between Judaism and modern life with films from the award-winning Ma’aleh film school in Israel and a scholar-in-residence series that begins with Rabbi Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, he pointed out. “All of these things are innovative and new things to really enhance our religious life.”

Upcoming events at Netivot Shalom

Motzei Shabbat film series
“A Shabbos Mother”
Saturday, Jan. 31, 7:30 p.m.

“A Pure Prayer”
Saturday, Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m.

Rabbi Dov Linzer of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah
Saturday, Feb. 7, 11:30 a.m.

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