What could be better than walking into the shul, immediately greeted by the sounds of children playing and teens laughing? If you answer that question based on the number of smiling faces often seen in the lower level of TBE, the answer would simply be “Nothing. Nothing could be better.” Such happy sounds evoke warm and fuzzy feelings, offering a sense of comfort that might only otherwise be found at home. Those feelings fuel the passion of Maurine Halpern, one of this year’s Young Leadership Award winners, and have for years.
Maurine first began participating in synagogue life in 2006 but didn’t get her feet wet in a volunteer capacity until a few years later. Anyone who knows Maurine will agree that she likes to get things done. Maybe “like” isn’t the right word. It’s a little more than that. She’s devoted, passionate, driven and detail oriented, always putting 100 percent or more into every project she undertakes. This begs the question: What drives her?
Family ranks at the top of that list. “There’s nothing more that I like better than to participate in things that are family friendly. Establishing rituals, having fun,” Maurine said. “You’re there together. Set an example. My daughters are watching.” This “lead by example” mantra manifests itself in myriad ways, clearly visible in all of Maurine’s volunteer projects and her work with families at the synagogue. As a mother of two, it makes sense that Religious School would be an area of focus for Maurine. When the Religious School needed a director in 2012, she was ready, willing and able. But also, it was a natural fit for her, given her extensive background in teaching and administration. “As an interfaith family, we wanted it to be the best program it could be for them, to teach our kids Jewishly,” Maurine said. “I had two small kids, so it mattered to me.” The value of a Jewish education is something Maurine and her husband Jacob hold close to their hearts.
Beyond that, though, Maurine desires to enhance a greater sense of community for future generations at the shul. She and Jacob both reflect those values in their volunteer work. “We’re dedicated. We’re doing what we’re doing for our kids, so that they have a long term, deep connection with Judaism,” Maurine said. “Both of us feel responsible for having a part in doing whatever we can do now so that it will be there for our kids. I feel directly responsible for making sure my two kids have a temple to go to when they are adults. I am healthy. I am young. I have a lot I can contribute now.”
Maurine is uniquely positioned to offer an interfaith perspective to community life at Temple Beth-El and is dedicated to helping the synagogue become a more welcoming and inclusive spiritual home for all, no matter a person’s background or faith, as evidenced through her work with the Keruv initiative, among others.
“We’ve done a really good job the past couple of years of making people feel welcome and comfortable,” Maurine said. But there’s still more work to be done. “There are so many more interfaith families,” she said. “We want them to be part of the community, get to know the congregants, feel welcome enough to come.”
One of the factors that has been instrumental in Temple Beth-El becoming a more welcoming environment was the creation of the Halpern-Levitt KidZone & Family Center last year, a project in which Maurine played a crucial role. This creative, family friendly space is located in the Filler Social Hall. “I think the importance of play and having places that families can gather is what’s going to make people happy and connect people to each other. And, as a result, have them stay long term,” Maurine said. “The long-term result is what I was looking for.”
Maurine is optimistic about the future, the welcoming nature of the shul and it’s potential to expand, especially under the guidance of Rabbi Stephen. “I definitely applaud him for his leadership. The KidZone is a space but he, really as a leader, is the one that creates the welcoming culture and programs to bring people into that space.
There are so many people who desire spiritual connection and want to engage with young families, but it can be difficult. The KidZone helps make life a little easier. Parents can listen to and watch services while their children act out a scene from Paw Patrol in the opposite corner of the room. But more importantly, the space also enables small children to be exposed to Judaism on a subconscious level.
“They can play and actually hear what’s going on, and pick up some of that,” Maurine said. She has been able to witness this practice in action, recalling a little boy playing with his trucks on the floor while simultaneously singing a Hebrew song. The benefits of this type of learning are substantial and potentially so impactful on future generations. This is one of the primary reasons the KidZone has become one of Maurine’s favorite volunteer projects of all time.