As a child in Haifa, Israel, Meeka Simerly grew up in a secular Jewish family.
“What it means is that we never really did anything religious whatsoever other than celebrating the staple holidays,” Simerly said.
Because of this, she felt like something was missing for her. When she turned 30, Simerly moved to the U.S. and began attending a Reform Jewish synagogue for the first time in Santa Cruz, California.
“The minute I stepped into the synagogue, and I could sing in Hebrew and in English my soul just started to soar,” she said. “I felt so incredibly fulfilled [on] so many different levels.”
This was the beginning of a path for Simerly, which eventually led her to become the newest rabbi at Temple Adas Shalom, a Reform congregation in Havre de Grace.
“It really does feel so good and so right to be here,” said Simerly, who will lead her first Rosh Hashana service at sundown Sunday at Adas Shalom. Rosh Hashana is the celebration of the Jewish New Year 5783.
The synagogue, celebrating its 67th anniversary next month, draws families from Harford County, eastern Baltimore County, Cecil County and northwest Delaware. It serves approximately 140 Jewish and interfaith families.
Part of what drew Simerly to Temple Adas Shalom is its openness to LGBTQ+ rights.
“I’m dying to wed a gay couple,” she said.
Another draw for her is being able to work with children. On Thursdays, she leads children in songs in both Hebrew and English to preach tolerance of all faiths while playing her guitar. The children attend the synagogue’s Early Learning Center, a preschool open to the general community.
Simerly has an extensive background in music. While in Israel, she played in folk, rock and bluegrass bands. She also studied music education in college. She said she enjoys how music allows people to be silly with themselves.
“There is something that allows our spirit to really soar with the music,” she said, “with the way that people are so comfortable with one another without being judgmental.”
When she plays guitar, Simerly communicates a lot with her facial expressions, she said, “because I’m holding the guitar and I can’t really direct or conduct or say, so I emote with my body. I emote with my facial expressions … sometimes the children imitate me and I see what they do and it looks really funny.”
On a recent Thursday, Simerly also blew the shofar, a ram’s horn used during Jewish holidays, particularly Rosh Hashana. The children were served grape juice and challah bread, and Simerly went around to each child to offer a fist bump and a “Shabat Shalom,” a wish for a peaceful Sabbath.
A gig leading a youth choir is what first brought her to the synagogue in Santa Cruz and Reform Judaism. A voice kept telling her to go further, she said, so Simerly became a cantor, who sings while guiding congregations through prayers during religious services. Simerly studied to get her master’s in Jewish music, and then she and her husband, David, moved to San Jose, where she served as a cantor at a synagogue for about 10 years.
Simerly realized she wanted to continue her education and become a rabbi. Once she became one, she moved to Wayne, New Jersey, to serve as rabbi at Temple Beth Tikvah for about six years before coming to Temple Adas Shalom.
When Rabbi John Franken left Temple Adas Shalom earlier this year to move to Israel, Simerly was found by a rabbinical search committee made up of the synagogue’s congregants, including Ashira Quabili.
“I really feel like we are blessed to have found someone who aligns so well with who we are as a community because [Simerly is] genuine and full of light and love, and that is exactly the spiritual leader that we wanted,” Quabili said.
The comment nearly brought Simerly to tears. She called it “bashert,” the Yiddish word for destiny, for her and Temple Adas Shalom having found each other.
“Nobody’s pretentious here,” Simerly said. “There is a level of kindness here and sincerity and welcoming that really doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Simerly, who lives in Whiteford, said she has received that same welcoming feeling from the Harford County community.
“It’s like living in a kibbutz [a communal style of living],” she said. “Even though here, every farm and every family unit really takes care of themselves, there is a sense of community regardless.”
While Simerly hasn’t been with the synagogue very long, having started as rabbi Aug. 10, she already fits in well.
“It’s been wonderful,” said Mark Wolkow, Temple Adas Shalom’s president. “It hasn’t been very long … but definitely refreshing.”
Simerly did not always see herself on this path, however.
“If you asked me 30 years ago, what am I going to do when I grow up, and you told me, ‘I think you’re gonna be a rabbi,’ I would just, like, roll on the floor laughing my tuchus off,” she said.
As a child, she rarely stepped foot in a synagogue, partially because she did not want to be separated from her father since men and women are traditionally apart in orthodox synagogues.
“When one leaves a place to go and live somewhere else it means that there is some unrest and agitation from the inside that really moves us towards our path,” Simerly said.
Reform Judaism allows for more of an individual path for a person to take and also allows for greater liberty with gender equality and overall inclusiveness in ways that orthodox Judaism does not, she said.
Simerly said that Reform Judaism in Israel currently is very small. The main two sects of Judaism are secular and orthodox.
“It’s really a dichotomy in Israel,” Quabili said. “You have secular Jews and you have religious Jews, and there’s not much of a middle ground there.
“There’s all of these different ways to be Jewish in America, and so it is a lot more accommodating to find yourself a path to your own Jewish identity.”
Simerly has four goals in her new role as rabbi: caring for her congregants; reaching out to the greater community; connecting with local interfaith representatives; and connecting with hospitals, retirement homes and other organizations to provide “spiritual and emotional care,” with the help of her guitar and her Bernedoodle, Oreo.
Heading into the Jewish New Year, Simerly hopes to see people coming together again. She’s seen how people have been vastly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and hopes to see people begin to move forward from it.
“I’m really hoping that people will really let go of their fear of coming together,” she said. “My hope is that those that are really terrified will feel a sense of solace on their inside somehow.”
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If people still don’t feel comfortable returning to synagogue, Simerly hopes they will “let us know how we can help to support them so they don’t feel isolated anymore.”
She also hopes that people who have been driven apart due to political differences can find their way back to one another.
“It is people before politics, always,” she said.
Simerly said her congregants know her humor she cracks herself up. For instance, instance, she flapped her arms like a bird when discussing having to fly from San Jose to Los Angeles once a week while in rabbinical school.
As a leader, she tries “not to come from a place of being a leader.
“For me, it is about teaching everybody and giving different opinions,” Simerly said. “My job is to make sure that you make your own educated decision. And that’s how I lead.”