How Sha’arei Torah Found Its Footing As A Young Modern Orthodox Congregation

Last year, Sha’arei Torah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Amberley Village, celebrated a decade since its founding — though with a classically Jewish hitch.

“Even the 10th anniversary celebration was late to the 10th anniversary celebration,” said Rabbi Ezra Goldschmiedt. The synagogue was founded in 2011, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, members didn’t commemorate the landmark in 2021, instead waiting another year to do so.

“For the synagogue, it was really important” to mark the occasion, Goldschmiedt said. “The founding members…feel a very serious sense of accomplishment. It was the kind of thing that certainly could have just fizzled out.”

The relatively new congregation, serving 70-80 families, is part of the growing Orthodox Jewish community in Cincinnati, evolving the Jewish identity of a city historically known for being a bastion of the Reform movement. For the rabbi, he sees Sha’arei Torah (which means Gates of Torah) as walking in two worlds: rooted in traditional Jewish law and practice, but also being welcoming to an increasingly diverse membership.

“I’ll be on your case to stop talking during services, but I’m not going to tell you how to dress, you know, that sort of thing,” Goldschmiedt said. “We do see this as a mark of pride, we have a really diverse group; many who probably wouldn’t even identify themselves as modern Orthodox.”

Sha’arei Torah started as a group that broke away from another area synagogue, meeting in members’ homes and a former girls high school while figuring out how to survive. The congregation quickly found itself on the path to sustainability, buying property on which to build a home in 2012, and moving into the new building in 2014.

In the interim, it hired Goldschmeidt, a Yeshiva University graduate who was working in Toronto, as the community’s rabbi.

Goldschmiedt was intrigued when he heard about the position, which was then supposed to be quarter time. “I thought, okay, quarter time is not super appealing, but let’s give it a shot,” he said. But what really caught his attention was a statement of principles that the congregation had put together.

The principles include a commitment to Torah study and mitzvot (Jewish deeds), as well as the involvement of women in leadership and study; accessibility for people with disabilities; and a recognition of “the fact that Jews at every level of observance have made vital material and spiritual contributions to the advancement of the Jewish people. We believe that all Jews can play a key role in shaping our collective destiny.”

Goldschmiedt’s interview went so well that the congregation made his role as rabbi a half time position. “My first two years here, I was also a third grade teacher at Cincinnati Hebrew Day School, which was incredibly fulfilling,” he said.

Over time, Goldschmiedt became the full time rabbi at Sha’arei Torah, where he applies his background in education to navigating the diversity of membership he serves. Organizing classes for an audience with mixed knowledge about Judaism can be a challenge.

“People’s awareness of Jewish sources — their literacy, so to speak — I think people very often confuse that with intelligence,” he said. But just because someone might know less about Judaism, doesn’t mean they aren’t smart: “That just means, [as an educator] okay, you’re giving a speech, giving a class, it needs to be sophisticated stuff for everyone.”

Having learning be accessible is part of the philosophy of the congregation, Goldschmiedt said. Making sure “everyone who might not otherwise have the background is getting that background, they’re getting things in translation…that’s the kind of educational setting that we’re trying to create.”

Meanwhile, the synagogue is also navigating the unique dynamics of the Modern Orthodox community. Sha’arei Torah has seen a decent amount of turnover as families leave and new families join. That’s partly because of families seeing a lack of schooling options, particularly for high school-aged children, the rabbi said.

But it also has to do with why Modern Orthodox Jews come to Cincinnati in the first place: professional opportunities, like medical residencies or work at Procter & Gamble.

That’s “unlike other elements of the Orthodox community, where I think for many, it’s, ‘I want to find a place where it’s affordable, there’s kosher amenities…and the job is part of that, but I’ll figure that out when I get there,’” Goldschmiedt said. “Within the Modern Orthodox community, it’s definitely much more professionally oriented.”

A focus on careers doesn’t mean Jewish practice is any less important once people do come to Cincinnati. “That’s very often what comes first that makes a person from our ranks think of Cincinnati,” Goldschmiedt said.

But then he hopes that Sha’arei Torah can be “a good home for them.”