Two Friends, Two Synagogues, One Jewish Community

by Michele Gelman and Sheila Gold

Michele Gelman is a native of New Orleans.  By comparison, Sheila Gold is a relative “newcomer,” having been actively involved with her congregation for only 23 years.  Despite this difference, these two women share many things:  friendship, commitment to their respective synagogues, devotion to the Jewish community, and a love of pedicures.

Michele:  We met nearly seven years ago.  We were both enrolled in a two-year leadership development program through the New Orleans Federation and a mutual friend, before we enrolled in the Federation program, invited us to dinner at the Chef’s Table at Emeril’s Restaurant.  I left that night knowing my husband and I would be friends with the Golds, but I had no idea that our friendship would develop through our Jewish journey together.

Sheila:  As part of the program, we traveled together in Israel.  We literally spent 24 hours a day together for 10 days.   The trip was designed to bond our group and it certainly did!  Spending so much time together, we learned a lot about each other and the families we’d left back in New Orleans. Our husbands were on the trip as well and they too developed a nice friendship.  Our girls are “stair-stepped” in age at 10, 11, 12 and 13 years old.  They all attend the same school and spend summers at URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS.  Our older two girls, who have spent the last several years in the same cabin, have their own strong friendship, which has its roots in Jewish learning and commitment.

Michele:  Both of us devote so much of our Jewish volunteer energy to synagogue life that we always have something to talk about.  I’m a member of Congregation Gates of Prayer; Sheila belongs to Temple Sinai.  Even though they’re “competing synagogues,” they often face many of the same challenges and questions—especially as synagogue life and membership become an increasingly hard-sell.

Sheila:  Over time, as our friendship grew, so did our leadership skills and our commitment to our own temples.  Several years ago, each of us was nominated to an executive board position, putting us on track to be the congregation’s president.  As we got more involved in our leadership posts, we began to share ideas and troubleshoot synagogue issues that were especially tricky or troubling.  While the age and demographics of our respective congregations may vary, the universal issues of membership, budget and engagement remain the same.  It is not unusual for us to use the other as a sounding-board around related topics.

Michele:  Many folks are surprised by our alliance—not the friendship part as much as the fact that we use each other as a support system and a sounding board for the leadership challenges we each face.  We find this funny and reject all together the notion of competition.

Sheila:  Luckily, our board meetings are on different nights of the week so we’re available to each other for “consultations.”  For instance, last Tuesday night, the night of Michele’s board meetings, she sent me a text that said, “What is your social media policy?” We had a bit of back and forth, all while she was at the meeting.

Michele:  And a few weeks before that, on a Monday night, Sheila texted me this question:  “Do you have members underwrite religious school events?”  I filled her in on the policy at Gates of Prayer, which helped her temple’s leadership devise their own guidelines.

Sheila:  Although, of course, there’s not going to be a merger anytime soon, we think it is crucially important for the Jewish community to function in a way that blurs lines and unifies communities, strengthening the Jewish people.

Michele:  I intentionally chose to have my presidency coincide with Sheila’s installation as president.  Why not?  We support the Jewish community and the Jewish people, and both work for the collective good.  If our friendship can be a symbol for something greater, all the better—for us, for our congregations and for the community-at-large.

Sheila: Michele and I always stand and speak shoulder to shoulder, in strong, steady voices.  As we set off down the road toward our respective presidencies, our conversations (and our texts) certainly will continue!

Michele Mohre Gelman is a third generation lifetime member of Congregation Gates of Prayer, where she serves as executive vice president.  Her two-year term as president will begin on July 1, 2013.  Thanks to her two daughters and very devoted husband she is able to dedicate time to serving the congregation and the Jewish community.

Sheila Korones Gold is incoming president of Temple Sinai. An active member of the congregation for 23 years, she is—compared to Michele—a relative newcomer to New Orleans.  Sheila’s heritage includes past temple leaders, and she hopes to pass the tradition on to her two daughters.  When she’s not volunteering in the Jewish community, Sheila spends time with her daughters and her incredibly supportive husband, all of whom allow her the time and space to give Jewishly.