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When a synagogue shuts its doors, what happens to its windows?

Local mergers reflect a national trend

 
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Bergen County’s synagogue mergers reflect a national trend, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

The trend has several causes, he said, including the economic downturn and declining synagogue affiliation among Reform and Conservative Jews.

According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the number of families affiliated with the movement’s synagogues in the Northeast dropped by 30 percent in the past decade.

Another factor in Conservative mergers are long-term changes in the movement. When the Conservative movement began building its suburban synagogues in the 1950s, Sarna said, “they assumed that there were members who walked, so you tended to have Conservative synagogues every couple of miles. Nowadays, you don’t make that assumption.”

That would explain why Fair Lawn, which encompasses 5.2 square miles, had four Conservative synagogues before mergers reduced them to two, one egalitarian and one traditional.

“In terms of the Reform movement, I think that the economic downturn hit the Reform movement particularly hard, as did the Great Depression, because for some Reform Jews, paying synagogue dues was a discretionary expense,” he said.

Sarna said synagogue mergers have been a constant in American Jewish history. A wave of mergers took place when Jews began moving to suburbia. Chicago’s KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue, famed for its location across the street from President Barack Obama’s former home, is the result of merger of several Reform congregations. “As that area of Chicago changed and the Jews moved out, all of them merged into one congregation,” Sarna said.

He believes that larger cultural trends herald more bad news for synagogue affiliation and continuing interest in mergers.

“We’ve gone a significant number of decades of having a religious revival, where much of the talk was about people becoming more religious. I think there’s growing evidence that that era has ended and in fact we’re seeing — as we did in the 1920s — a movement in the other direction, away from churches and synagogues. We’ve seen these cycles throughout American history,” he said.

 

More on: When a synagogue shuts its doors, what happens to its windows?

 
 
 

Sons of Israel’s parting gifts

 

(And other questions about closure)

For an ailing synagogue, merging with a healthier congregation is seldom Plan A.

“It’s something that develops over a period of years, because the first choice is to make what you have work,” said Mel Glantz, who was a long-time member of Cong. Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield. “There’s a sense of failure when you’ve got to merge.”

Nevertheless, his synagogue merged with another Conservative congregation, Beth Sholom in Teaneck, in 2008. It was one of eight synagogue mergers in North Jersey over the past five years.

 
 
 
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Jersey City Boy

Mayor Steven Fulop tells his story — and his immigrant parents schep naches

The story of the new mayor of Jersey City is a goulash — a rich, highly seasoned, aromatic stew, full of disparate ingredients that somehow blend together.

This variant is kosher.

And for added authenticity, it’s Hungarian.

Steven Fulop’s story is both as deeply American and as fully Jewish as one person’s story could be — it is our own 21st-century version of the great American dream.

Cooking alongside it is the story of Jersey City, the state’s second largest, with a century-long history of corruption and bossism that Mr. Fulop is well positioned to turn around.

Mr. Fulop’s story starts with his grandparents. All four were born in Transylvania, the heavily wooded, mountainous, lushly beautiful region that has changed hands between Hungary and Romania. As this story begins, it still was part of Hungary. World War II came late there; his mother’s parents, the Kohns, were taken from the ghetto toward its end. His grandfather, Alexander, went to a transit camp, and his grandmother, Rosa, was on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in April 1944.

Her story is so painful that when her son-in-law, Arthur Fulop, tells it, his eyes fill, even though it is a story he has been telling for decades.

 

Take my kidney. Please…

Local cantor is living donor for beloved congregant

It’s fairly easy to say “I hope you feel better” to a sick friend.

It’s much harder to put your kidney where your mouth is, but Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center did.

On February 19, he donated a kidney to his friend, Harvey Jaffee of Garfield.

Mr. Jaffee was in what his doctors “were starting to call end-stage kidney failure,” he reported. He now has a functioning kidney and will be able to resume his life, and Cantor Wasser will be able to return to his. Both, they say, feel enriched and ennobled (if temporarily weakened) by the experience.

Mr. Jaffee’s kidneys had been failing for some time, and he had trekked from doctor to doctor as he tried to get on the registry for a transplant. The screening process is extraordinarily thorough. “It’s one of the most daunting things in the world,” he said. “They send you to doctor after doctor, to check every orifice you have — and some that you don’t. Sometimes I was seeing four or five doctors a week.

 

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did — created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity — but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child preschool, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly — on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! — that it is hard to realize that she is only 41.

 

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The Jewish people’s 911

Local archivist collects a century of JDC photographs

Twenty-six serious men sit around the table.

Two of the men have long beards; half wear mustaches. Scattered between them are two women, one of whom, of course, is the stenographer, known only as Mrs. F. Friedman. The other is the comptroller.

The year is 1918, and the men are leaders of the Jewish community. Most, like the host of the meeting, banker Felix Warburg, and his father-in-law, banker Jacob Schiff, are Reform Jews of German origin. A couple, including those with beards, are Orthodox and from Eastern Europe. Some are rabbis; one is novelist Sholem Asch. The comptroller is Harriet B. Lowenstein.

Meet the founders of the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers, the organization now known as the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and variously as JDC or “the Joint” for short.

 

The case of the family tree

Local rabbi solves genealogical mystery

Move over Sherlock Holmes. There’s some pretty good detective work going on right here in Bergen County.

Putting together clues and puzzle-like pieces of information, Rabbi Benjamin Shull has solved what he jokingly refers to as his “semi-obsession” — the search for more branches on his family tree.

In the process, he has discovered previously unknown relatives, uncovered a direct link to a renowned Lithuanian rabbi and Musar activist, and come into possession of a beautiful, illuminated honest-to-goodness family tree.

Rabbi Shull, the religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, has written a memoir, “Uprooted,” detailing his journey.

His story begins in the early 1990s, at the cemetery in Philadelphia where his father’s family is buried.

 

The little house in the big woods

Artist’s family remembers growing up in Fort Lee

The three children grew up in the middle of the woods.

There were acres of land all around the house; waterfalls tumbled from the rocky hills and splashed down in their rush toward the mighty color-shifting river far below. There were trees to climb, trails to blaze, rocks to scale. For half of the year, glorious canopies of trees shaded their view; when the leaves fell, the children could see the river, and the ships that steamed silently upriver to unload and then headed back south again, out to sea.

It was a perfect pastoral scene, the backdrop for a bucolic 19th-century childhood.

Then pull the camera back a bit. You’ll see that the river is the Hudson, the time the second half of the 20th century, and the town is Fort Lee.

 
 
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