Spotlight on synagogue volunteers
In praise of the men and women who keep our shuls humming
|Michelle Harris, left, Jerry Weiner, Mary Moroch, and Robert Smolen.|
In February, in a feature called “If not them, who?” we focused on several “go-to guys”: men and women identified by their rabbis or synagogue presidents as volunteers par excellence. At the time, we invited our readers to submit more names. Below, we highlight those volunteers singled out by their congregations for much-deserved recognition.
If there’s one thing area rabbis agree on, it’s that their synagogues could not function without volunteers.
“In this age of decreased affiliation and reduced resources, synagogues more than ever need to rely on volunteers to provide all services from office work to maintenance to communications to Torah reading and worship,” Rabbi David Fine of Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center said. “Synagogue professionals have come to depend on volunteers to do what was in the past often covered by support staff.”
But even more, he added, “This current need expands upon the age-old value of service to the sacred community.”
With this in mind, Fine has high praise for volunteer Robert Smolen.
“Without people like Bob Smolen, I don’t know how synagogues could exist,” he said.
“Not only does he not know how to say no when asked to help with something, but he looks on his own to figure out what needs to be done and volunteers before being asked.”
Smolen, middle school director at Oakland’s Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School, has been an active member of Temple Israel since 1999.
The New Milford resident has held many formal positions in the shul — he has been, among other things, membership chair, house chair, and board member — and his family has celebrated its lifecycle events there, including b’nai mitzvah and an aufruf.
But it’s the intangible connection, the feeling of community and spirituality, that drives him to participate as he does.
“Synagogue participation is a central focus for me, the piece that lets me find spirituality and feel like a contributing member,” he said. By being a resource for the community, he added, he helps build a stronger community, and that, in turn, strengthens him.
Smolen said he likes dealing with the physical challenges of enhancing the synagogue, from renovating the rabbi’s house three years ago to fixing handrails around the shul to repainting the lines in the synagogue parking lot.
“There’s a different level of experience when people work together,” he said, likening the house renovation to a barn-raising. “We had a significant number of volunteers. It brought people together, and we did it less expensively.”
Smolen has spearheaded other building jobs as well.
“The handrails around the synagogue were rusting,” he said, noting that because he always has been good at fixing things, he looks around the shul for jobs to tackle. “I got a group of volunteers, and for six weeks during the summer we renovated and painted.”
Smolen said he never has trouble finding other volunteers to help him.
“The congregation pulls together,” he said. “They’re willing to volunteer at every level, from kids to seniors. We enjoy working together.”
In addition to serving the shul in innumerable ways, Smolen attends services regularly. His rabbi considers that quite significant.
“[Bob] understands what so many today have forgotten, that the core of synagogue commitment is simply being present at services on a regular basis,” Fine said. “Everything else follows that.”
“My daily thought is, ‘What can I do today to help contribute?’” Smolen said. “It’s my mantra — ‘What needs to be done?’”
“It’s not just about seeing the results of the work but about building community. I would feel disconnected if I couldn’t participate in some way.”
It was no contest.
Rabbi Stephen Wylen — religious leader of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne — knew immediately who to cite as the synagogue’s leading volunteer.
Mary Moroch, a synagogue member since 1957, isn’t surprised that the rabbi targeted her for this distinction.
“I’m there every day,” said the 83-year-old, who has held many offices at the shul, from ritual chair to membership chair to “all around gofer.”
Moroch said her three children all became b’nai mitzvah at the synagogue, and Rabbi Wylen performed her second marriage.
“I might have been a vice president, but I don’t remember,” she laughed. “But if someone doesn’t know something at the synagogue, people say ‘Ask Mary.’”
“It’s a part of me,” she said, explaining that she’s now in charge of the morning minyan. “It’s a great way to start the day. I love going there early in the morning.”
While she used to serve breakfast, that is no longer done.
“I sit and meditate a bit,” she said, adding that she began that practice when her first husband was ill, and she has kept it up.
“People come to me at the temple when it’s too hot or too cold. I’m there and I’m available,” she said, noting that during a recent simcha she was identified from the bimah as “Mrs. TBT.”
“They count on me because I’m there every morning. If the custodian is not there, the business administrator asks me to open up and close” the building.
Moroch, a member of the temple choir since 1958 — and, she says, the only original member left — leads morning services on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, “and sometimes on Sunday.”
In addition, she lights the yahrzeit lights every week and cleans the tallitot when she sees they are dirty.
Formerly a legal secretary and paralegal, she retired eight years ago.
“They called me ‘Legal Mary’ at town hall,” she said, adding that she was given a big retirement party, and several judges were among the guests.
She recalled that one Friday night several years ago then-synagogue president Richard Moskow read a resolution honoring her.
“I’m the only one in the temple with my own chair,” she said. “They put a plaque on the chair where I sit.”
She explained that she positions her chair in the corner so that if someone needs help, perhaps during a bar mitzvah — and she attends them all, she said — she can offer assistance.
“If I don’t go to the temple, I feel bad,” she said. “There has to be a good reason.
“It’s a spiritual thing. God’s there. I can just sit there and think about a lot of things and feel a calmness come over me. It’s a wonderful feeling. You can go out and face the day.”
Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel since 2007, tells a funny story.
“When I was new to the congregation, I saw Jerry Weiner so willing to help and so well known in the congregation, I assumed he’d been a volunteer for 30 years.”
In fact, he learned later, Jerry also was new to the shul. He became a member through the FLJC’s merger with B’nai Israel in 2006.
Weiner, who says he held almost all the formal offices at his old shul — he was a seven-term synagogue president and chaired many committees — has been equally busy in his new home. He chairs the Sunday morning minyan breakfast, “doing shopping, schlepping, and setting up,” and he is a member of the social action and religious affairs committees and on the shul’s executive committee.
“I also volunteer every day in the office,” he said, “stuffing envelopes, answering calls, whatever they need me to do. There’s a joke that my wife pays them $10,000 to keep me out of the house.”
Weiner, a former teacher and school administrator who said that he likes to be busy and to help others, also is available to fellow congregants.
“I like to be with people,” he said. “If someone needs a ride [to a doctor] they call me. I’ve been retired since 2001 so I have the time.”
Calling himself a “traditional kind of Jew,” Weiner said he enjoys doing mitzvot.
“The staff can’t handle everything,” he said, adding that “it’s nice to have ownership” of the groups he belongs to. For example, he has been on the Fair Lawn library board for 15 years, served as secretary of the Knights of Pythias for some 20 years, and participated on the board of the town’s mental health center. He was also a multi-term president of the Fair Lawn board of education.
Weiner attends synagogue services regularly, “every morning minyan, many evenings, and every Saturday and Sunday, barring vacations.”
Everyone knows, he said, that if they want to get something done, “you know who” is happy to do it.
“A synagogue could not function without volunteers,” Roth said. “There’s just so much professionals can do. There are so many tasks — from the most mundane, like helping to set things up, to the highest level, such as those who are deeply involved in [shul] governance and organizing programs.”
Weiner, the rabbi said, is a good volunteer “on many levels.”
“He’s a happy and positive person, he makes people feel good,” he said. “Those character traits are so necessary for volunteers to be successful. Also, he’s willing to do almost anything. It covers the whole gamut from what needs to be done in the office to offering his wisdom and experience on the board.”
“It’s my way of paying back for the good things we get from the community,” Weiner said. “It’s nice to be nice. It makes me feel good and gives me a certain satisfaction knowing that I’m doing something important.”
Michele Harris, a member of Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Closter since 1996, calls the congregation “my community.”
She has served the congregation in many formal leadership positions, beginning with her involvement in its sisterhood.
“It started when my son was in his bar mitzvah year,” Harris said, explaining that she comes from South Africa and that her family was planning to attend the simcha.
“The front [of the synagogue] was unfinished. I went to the director and asked what he was doing to make it look better. He said a bunch of people were meeting to talk about that.”
What she found at the meeting, however, were young women interested in revitalizing the sisterhood.
“And that’s how I got involved,” said Harris, noting that at the time, the group “was staunchly upheld by five older ladies.”
Today, that sisterhood is one of the most active in the country, she said.
“It’s unbelievable what we do.” She has served as the group’s vice president and board member.
She’s particularly proud of introducing the mishloach manot project, which distributes Purim packages, “over 1,000 a year, to all congregants, and involves and engages every member at some level.” People who receive Meals on Wheels also receive the packages.
“It’s a huge mitzvah,” she continued. “Everybody is involved, whether purchasing or receiving. It’s all hand-delivered, kosher, and much of it is from Israel.”
Harris’s particular interest, and strength, has been in beautifying the synagogue.
“First, we fixed up the front of the building and did the landscaping,” she said, adding that she was given a budget to hire people to put in a seasonal garden.
She was adamant that the synagogue not have an “institutional” garden.
“We’re not a hospital or a bank,” she said. “It’s our Jewish religious home and should be treated more as a home.”
Harris noted that renovation efforts at the back of the shul recently were completed under her guidance.
“I spearheaded a huge project to renovate the playground for the early childhood center and the outdoor sanctuary,” she said, adding that she had both raised the money and overseen the design.
“I like to build things you can see and things you can’t see,” she said, explaining that she also had been a leading force in the merger of her synagogue with Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Am.
Harris, who holds a degree in nonprofit management, said that she truly believes in what her synagogue — which she described as “open and inclusive” — stands for within the fabric of Jewish life in Bergen County and as a representative of the Reform movement. If she has given thousands of hours to that synagogue, it is because “it is very gratifying to see people come together to do good, socialize, and connect.”
“We’re a wonderful community, one that has come through the recession holding our own,” she said. “Many temples have seen a huge reduction. We’ve maintained the status quo.
“When times are bad, people need the synagogue,” she continued. “It’s not the time to turn people away. You have to find a way to make people feel that this is their home, or you shouldn’t be in the business. It’s a fine balance. If you cut something, you need to make sure it doesn’t erode the core value of why you exist, or you’re not fulfilling your mission.”