By Alex Putterman
GREENWICH – It was fall 2003, the first High Holidays for fledgling Congregation Shir Ami, and everyone was called on to participate. Congregants volunteered for reading and children were involved readily. It was the ultimate participatory service.
Not much has changed since. Founded 10 years ago by a group of Greenwich families who opted to start their own congregation, Shir Ami quickly grew from a congregation of about 10 families to one of 60, holding services in Greenwich two Fridays a month and on Saturday mornings when there is a bar or bat mitzvah scheduled. At those services congregants read from a recovered Torah that had been abandoned at the start of the Holocaust (see sidebar).
Through all growth, however, inclusion has reigned as the congregation’s guiding principle. In the words of Shir Ami spiritual leader Rabbi Vicky Axe, the congregation strives to “provide a welcoming spiritual home for all people who are looking for spiritual nourishment and learning and maintaining Jewish life and culture.”
That spirit is more than just talk. More than 40 percent of Shir Ami families are either interfaith or include a Jew-by-choice.
“People fall in love with whom they fall in love with,” Axe says. “They make decisions about the kind of home they want to create, and if they choose to create a Jewish home, it’s incumbent on us to be welcoming and make every member of the family feel part of our community.”
Every congregant seems to agree on Shir Ami’s two grand virtues. The first is the above noted inclusiveness. The second is the presence of Rabbi Axe.
Axe was ordained as a cantor upon graduation from Hebrew Union College and served several synagogues in that capacity for 20 years. In 2003, she was persuaded to abandon her post as cantor at Greenwich Reform Synagogue and step up to the pulpit at Shir Ami.
Axe’s presence was a deal-maker for several families. Ray Marschall says his family was struggling with whether or not to join Shir Ami when his youngest son, noting Axe’s association with the fledgling congregation, put things in perspective. “What are you even thinking about?” he said. Rabbi Axe it was.
Jennifer Stranzl moved her family to Connecticut five years ago and joined Shir Ami two years later. She doesn’t regret it. “It is one of the most welcoming Jewish communities I’ve ever encountered,” she says. “It’s small and intimate and you get a lot of attention from the rabbi as well.”
Stranzl also points to Axe as the congregation’s biggest asset, calling her a “dynamo” with an “incredible energy” and “magnetic personality.” This in addition to being learned, spiritual and perhaps most importantly, musical.
The former cantor incorporates song and dance into routine services, engaging audiences of all ages and stocking the congregation with vibrancy. Axe hoped to create an experience at Shir Ami that’s distinct from other congregations, and the welcoming melodies are a continuation on the theme of inclusiveness.
To celebrate a decade of soulful and songful services, the Shir Ami congregation lit a candle at each holiday event thoughout this year — Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, etc. — adding one candle as the year moved along. Then, in June, when the tenth and final candle was set aglow, a party was held at a congregant’s home. “It was just beautiful,” Axe says. “It was a beautiful, beautiful, social celebration of our 10 years.”
The future appears similarly bright for Shir Ami. Axe says the congregation has maintained its size for several years and has no great desire to expand but, as people come and go, is always looking for new, young families to add to the community.
Shir Ami recently organized a beach service, which they refused to cancel amid threats of rain. When the weather report proved accurate and a drizzle began, the congregation held towels over the heads of the performers. The act was symbolic of Shir Ami’s persistence, its communal spirit and its carefree optimism.
“That’s kind of the way we do things,” founding member Ray Marschall says. “We got a little wet, but big deal.”
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Shir Ami congregants dance with the shul’s Torah at the
Simchat Torah celebration last October.