Subscribe to The Jewish Standard free weekly newsletter

 
font size: +
 

A community grows in Fair Lawn

Orthodox shuls expand as new and younger families move in

 
|| Tell-a-Friend || Print
 
 
image
From left, David Glassberg, Ari Pruzansky, Rabbi Eli Belizon, and Rabbi Yaakov Ehrenkranz.

When Rabbi Benjamin Yudin moved to Fair Lawn to lead Congregation Shomrei Torah in 1969, only 17 families belonged to the borough’s sole Orthodox synagogue.

Today, Fair Lawn has seven synagogues that follow Orthodox practice, including two Lubavitch-Chabad and a Sephardic.

Shomrei Torah has close to 300 member units. Its leadership has made a concerted effort over the past five years to recruit young families after noting that although the sanctuary was filled on Shabbat, there weren’t many baby strollers parked outside.

They asked Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future to partner in a program to offer young married YU graduates two years of rent-free living in a nearby apartment complex in return for spreading the word about Fair Lawn to their friends.

Now the shul’s entryway boasts a couple dozen carriages on Saturday mornings, and the auxiliary service originally created to ease the overflow in the main sanctuary has become the Young Couples Minyan.

Yudin points out that the leafy suburb has much to offer Jewish families: It is easily accessible to New York City and only minutes from the Orthodox hubs of Teaneck and Passaic. The borough has its own mikveh and kosher eateries. In neighboring Paramus, Yeshivat Noam and Yavneh Academy each have student populations of about 800 from preschool to eighth grade.

“For young families, the best indication that special things are happening is that in the last 10 years there has been incredible growth in the local Jewish day schools,” Yudin said. This is a major factor in wooing new members, he added.

“Our success rate has been phenomenal,” said former Shomrei Torah president Willie Hochman, one of the architects of the Community Growth Initiative. “Many of these young men and women who moved in three or four years ago have anchored themselves to the community by buying houses.”

An assistant rabbi, Andrew Markowitz, was brought aboard in August 2010 to cater to the younger members’ needs.

“It’s a team effort with my wife, Sara,” Markowitz said. “We create a positive energy so people who come to visit Fair Lawn will have a nice warm experience in the Young Couples minyan and afterward.”

The next step was opening a beit midrash (adult Torah study program) at Shomrei Torah, open four weeknights for the entire community. The program was suggested, initiated, and funded by individual members.

Hochman says the program has been attractive to the young demographic the shul has been seeking. “We did research about [Orthodox] couples and found they’re looking for communities with established growth through Torah. When they come home from work and after the kids are in bed, they want to learn [Torah] at night.”

Teaneck native Rabbi Eli Belizon, 30, was enlisted to head the beit midrash, begun last September. He and the beit midrash committee recruited three men — Rabbi Yaacov Ehrenkrantz, David Glassberg, and Ari Pruzansky — to staff the program. The three, all of whom are married, moved to Fair Lawn for their beit midrash fellowships. Their positions are part-time; each has a full-time job elsewhere.

“All these families, wives included, are part of the fabric of the community and not just in the beit midrash four nights a week,” Hochman said. “We now offered a fellowship to a fourth person, Michael Hoenig from Teaneck, who will start after the summer. Six months into the program we already have that need [to expand].”

Hochman added that the popularity of the program “has energized us” but does not indicate a major shift in the Orthodox character of Fair Lawn. “The color of the community is not going to change,” he said. “We’re a very heterogeneous community.”

Belizon and his wife, Rebecca, bought a house and moved in with their three children. “I felt it was really incredible that people who are working all day have a desire to add another element of learning at night, and that this is the type of growth [the synagogue’s leaders] want and the type of people they want to attract,” he said. “I saw unbelievable potential.”

The beit midrash offers customized learning in the evening, and Belizon presents a community-wide class every Tuesday evening. In addition, Rebecca Belizon gives a women’s class and lunch-and-learn sessions.

“We also have special programs before each holiday in our house that we invite the whole community to join,” he said. “And my wife recently ran a program of learning and fun for four- to eight-year-old girls in our house, so the [initiative] should involve the whole family and not just those who come to learn at night.”

Men and women drop in to study in the beit midrash from across Fair Lawn and range in age from teens to people in their 70s, Belizon said. Members of other Orthodox synagogues in Fair Lawn, including Rabbi Jeremy Donath of Congregation Darchei Noam, are regular participants.

“For us as a young couple, Fair Lawn is great,” Donath said. Donath, who is 27 and from Minneapolis, was hired by the six-year-old shul in 2011 after internships at synagogues in Teaneck and Englewood. He recommends the borough for its warm, homey environment.

“Fair Lawn has a little bit of a low-key, out-of-town feel where people are respectful of religious differences. There is something quaint about it. People choose this [over a larger community] if they want a sense that they matter, that they have a voice. They’re looking for something with a slightly different flavor.”

His 60-family synagogue is also actively trying to attract young families. Donath reports that one couple who visited on a recent Shabbat is planning a second “pilot trip.” An engaged couple also visited and expressed their intention to move to Fair Lawn. “Whether they ultimately come to our shul or to a different shul, it’s clear that people are seeing Fair Lawn as an option,” he said.

Markowitz has a similar perspective. “We are multigenerational and everyone has mutual respect for one another; Rabbi Yudin is proud of that. The community is small enough that everyone knows each other and people don’t feel they’re getting lost.”

Rabbi Uri Goldstein moved to Fair Lawn in September 2006 to head Congregation Ahavat Achim, a 90-family modern Orthodox synagogue founded in 1977 by nine families in the part of town close to Saddle River County Park and the border with Glen Rock. This is also where the Young Israel of Fair Lawn was founded about 12 years ago. There are no apartment complexes in this neighborhood, but Ahavat Achim and Young Israel each endeavor to appeal to house-hunting, growing families.

“We have seen an upswing in interest in Ahavat Achim from people ready to buy a home and put down roots,” Goldstein said.

“We are hosting families for Shabbat, families joined us from outside the area for our Purim activities, and we hope to put together a Shabbaton in the spring for prospective families. The people in our shul are very tight with each other in a wonderful way. It’s incredibly diverse and accepting. If you go to the park on Shabbat afternoon, you see a real spectrum of Orthodoxy, and everybody is friendly with each other, without questioning who’s wearing what. The family feel extends to the children too, no matter which school they go to.”

Dr. Larry Kraut, a Young Israel officer, says Torah learning opportunities are important to the shul’s 30 member families. Many of them participate in the beit midrash at Shomrei Torah and also attend weekly Torah Conferencing Network telecasts shown at the Young Israel.

“We pride ourselves in being associated with TCN, an international group that gives live shiurim [classes] in synagogues by world-renowned rabbis,” he said. “We’ve had Shabbatons inviting young couples to explore what we have on this side of town. We’re trying to spread the Yiddishkeit all around Fair Lawn.”

Yudin, too, reports that he is pleased to see how Orthodox Fair Lawn as a whole is experiencing a modest influx of young families. “I don’t pay much attention to numbers, but it is exciting that there has been this growth and I hope the rest of the community is the beneficiary,” he says.

Non-Orthodox streams in Fair Lawn have not been experiencing similar growth. The past few years have seen the Reform Temple Avoda merge with River Edge’s Temple Shalom and move there, and three Conservative congregations become two with the merger of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center and Congregation B’nai Israel. This combined synagogue has about 500 members, while Temple Beth Sholom serves some 250 households in Fair Lawn, Glen Rock, Paramus, and Ridgewood.

Rabbi Ronald Roth, spiritual leader of Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel since 2007, says enrollment in the congregation’s religious school has remained stable or grown slightly in that time. But he points out that the borough has seen a gain in children under five years old, in contrast to most other Bergen County municipalities, and some of that growth could be attributed to unaffiliated Jewish families.

His synagogue is situated across from Darchei Noam, and Roth has become friendly with Donath — but the Orthodox and Conservative rabbis do not have a forum for discussion with one another. “One of the issues in Bergen County is that there are two rabbinical groups, and we don’t have regular communication between the different movements,” Roth said.

Yudin acknowledges this, but asserts that the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is “always open to those areas that we can work jointly for the benefit of the Jewish community.”

“It is not enough to recite ‘chaverim kol Yisrael,’ ‘all Israel are to be friends,’ once a month when we have the blessing for the new month,” he said. “One has to believe it and live it. We have tried over the years in every which way to commit ourselves to that principle, because there is so much more that unites us as Jews, thank God, than divides us.”

 
|| Tell-a-Friend || Print
 
 

Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

It’s not every day that a liquor license comes up for sale in Teaneck. (State licensing laws limit the number of licenses in a formula based on a town’s population.)

So when Jonathan Gellis heard that the owner of Vinny O’s in Teaneck was looking to sell the establishment, including the license, after 28 years behind the bar, he realized that only one of the more than 20 kosher restaurants in Teaneck could sell alcohol.

That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

Tips for fighting campus anti-Israel activity

Local groups combine to give advice for college students and parents

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you know that anti-Israel sentiment and activity on college campuses is growing. Many of these hate-based initiatives pass the “3D” anti-Semitism litmus test developed by Nathan Sharansky and adopted by the U.S. State Department. They are the new face of anti-Semitism our teens must be prepared to counter as they head off to college.

For example, mock eviction notices were slipped under some colleges’ dorm room doors by pro-Palestinian groups who say that forced evictions are part of Israel’s “apartheid policies” ... to “cleanse the region of its Arab population.” Lie-filled Israeli Apartheid Week campaigns have become annual campus events. The Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement is trying to gain a foothold on campus as well, led by student groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine as well as by pro-Palestinian community groups and even some high profile anti-Zionist Jews like Max Blumenthal.

 

The converso’s dilemma

Local group goes to New Mexico to learn about crypto-Jews

Imagine that you were raised as a Catholic. Then one day — perhaps as a beloved parent or grandparent lay dying and leaned over to whisper something in your ear — you learned that your family once was Jewish. Your ancestors were converted forcibly some 500 years ago.

For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Helping kids play outside again

There’s an image from his trip to Israel last week that Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, cannot get out of his head.

Shames was with a delegation of 125 administrative and fundraising executives from the Jewish Federations of North America. They traveled together to Greece and Israel to assess overseas needs.

“Obviously there has been a lot of change in itinerary due to what’s been going on,” Mr. Shames said on Sunday, referring to Operation Protective Edge and the constant salvos from Gaza.

“Since we landed in Israel on Thursday, when things started escalating, we spent time devising what an emergency campaign should look like, and we decided to take a small group to show support in Sderot and Beersheva.”

 

Rabbi Ira Kronenberg retires

Rabbi Ira Kronenberg of Passaic clearly has staying power.

He also has a strong sense of responsibility and a deep concern for the people he serves.

Director of religious services at the Daughters of Miriam Center/The Gallen Institute in Clifton for some 39 years, the rabbi also enjoyed a long association — from 1972 to 2008 — with the United States Army. In both arenas, he played many roles and touched the lives of countless people.

At Daughters of Miriam, Rabbi Kronenberg conducted religious services, paid pastoral visits, supervised the kitchens, mentored social work students during their internships, and served as staff coordinator for the ethics committee and the residents’ council.

 

Shoes, glorious shoes

Local couple finds success weaving footware

Today, the shoes that Itamar Carmi of Teaneck designs with his wife, Rachel, are found in 1,200 stores around the world.

But his adventures in the shoe trade started with a bad loan in New York City.

Mr. Carmi had grown up in Tel Aviv. After the army, he studied at university for a year before deciding it wasn’t for him. So he came to New York to seek his fortune. The year was 1985.

He wasn’t penniless. He had enough money to lend a not insignificant amount to a friend who owned a shoe store on Fifth Avenue.

Rather than being repaid, he was brought on as a partner and an employee.

 
 
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31