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Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

Rabbi reflects on synagogue’s growth

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Ahavath Torah for some 26 years, attributes the synagogue’s growth and longevity to “good fortune, proximity to New York, a lovely area, and a sense of openness” toward people striving to lead Orthodox lives.

“A good deal of our character was set by the way it started,” said Goldin.

The rabbi, together with his wife, Barbara, will be honored on March 5 and 6 for their years of service to the congregation.

Describing the synagogue’s founders as “a group of people committed to Orthodox Judaism,” Goldin noted that they also were open to recognizing that they themselves were not always themselves ‘there.’”

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Barbara and Rabbi Shmuel Goldin Courtesy Rabbi Goldin

“The issue is to keep the community together and find ways to give people the ability to grow … maintaining a balance with a sense of tradition and continuity,” he said. “In each generation, Jewish law is given to us in trust, to use it and shape it and to engage ourselves and our generation.” But, he said, “we must then pass it down to another generation and it must bear a similarity to what we received. It’s a balance between continuity and adaptation — a fascinating amalgam of divine law and human logic.”

Goldin noted that, unlike in many other communities, “there’s been a vision and recognition by the lay leadership [of Ahavath Torah] that what we’re trying to build is one large congregation … rather than a bunch of splinters.”

That is not to say that members don’t have options, he stressed, “but people moving in can see that there is a center to this community. Young people gravitate to that center [and] we make them welcome.”

The Englewood shul, with more than 700 membership units, includes individuals of all ages, he said, with “a great number of young people and lots of children.” Figuring out how to accommodate and program for all these groups is a challenge.

Even in 1983, he said, when he came from Potomac, Md., to lead the Bergen County synagogue, “it was considered a major Orthodox congregation in the New York area.” With roughly 350 family units, the synagogue was then led by noted Rabbi Isaac Swift.

“I considered it to be a terrific opportunity,” Goldin said. He didn’t expect to get the job, being at least 10 years younger than all the other candidates, but the interview was a “great experience.” He met in the living room of longtime member George Feintuch with some “very distinguished looking people.”

Thinking he would probably not be hired, “I was very relaxed,” he said. “But then they started taking me seriously and I got nervous.”

On reflection, said Goldin, “it probably served me well that I was so different from the other candidates.”

Viewing the rabbinate as a “daily adventure,” the rabbi said that each day has presented different challenges. His goals, however, have remained consistent over the years.

“My first goal was to be a rabbi to the community, to serve their needs pastorally, to be there and play a role in their lives in whatever way they needed me,” he said.

He also strived “to keep the community together and grow it [believing that] it is better to be together under one roof with all our differences and points of views than splinter into small congregations.” Fortunately, he noted, the success of that strategy was enabled by the foresight of the lay leadership, giving the congregation a big enough building to accomplish that goal.

While the synagogue hosts numerous minyans, for special occasions — shul dinners, Yom HaShoah commemorations, and the like — congregants “unite for a cause,” said the rabbi. Since he is unable to attend each minyan on a regular basis, he shares this responsibility with the associate rabbi, Chaim Poupko; the rabbinic intern, Aaron Kraft; and the Ahavath Torah scholars, Rabbi Tzvi and Tova Sinensky. The synagogue also employs a yoetzet halakhah, who is available to answer the personal questions of women congregants.

“We just hired an administrator,” said Goldin, musing that “it’s a miracle we did so well without one” up to this point. He attributes this success to volunteerism within the community.

While Goldin feels he has been fairly successful in increasing the learning and Torah commitment of members, “we have a long way to go,” he said. He noted that his sermons and classes are directed toward critical issues “like the internal needs of the community, how can we pull together.”

In addition to adult education programs and scholars-in-residence, Goldin said, he has encouraged the development of groups within the community that study on their own, such as the Isaac Perry Beit Midrash Program.

Goldin said he also feels strongly about his members’ connection to Israel and has led more than 15 missions there. His was the first American congregation to visit Israel during the Iraqi Scud attacks, and in 2002 he spearheaded two rallies in Israel, bringing hundreds of people there to express their solidarity.

Goldin said he wants his members “to be open to the community at large. I’m proud that we have a good relationship with [UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey],” he said. “I work hard at that.”

He said he often cites the teaching about the patriarch Abraham, who described himself at the end of his life as a ger v’toshav, both a stranger and a citizen of the world. “This creates a unique dialectic,” said Goldin, recalling that during the height of the war in Kosovo, he traveled with 12 members of the congregation to work with Muslim Albanian refugee children, together with Israeli volunteers.

“This marks the kind of things we should do more of,” he said, adding that as the congregation settles into its new building, it should “look at ways in which we should play a world role.”

Another of his goals, he said, “is to keep the community abreast of and thinking about critical issues of the day.” He cited, for example, his involvement with NNJKIDS and Jewish Education for Future Generations, which is working to make day-school tuition more affordable for Jewish parents.

While it is important to have vibrant programming, said Goldin, the mark of a successful synagogue is “to try to be there each day and each week. The key to our community is being there every day.” The synagogue boasts four morning minyans as well as daily Minhah/Ma’ariv services.

Goldin, who has five children and four grandchildren, credits his wife, a speech pathologist, with “playing a tremendous role behind the scenes” and giving him some of his best ideas. “She’s not your typical rebbetzin,” he said.

He noted, for example, that it was her idea for him to meet every Friday night with third- to fifth-graders to study the Torah portion of the week.

“That way I get to know the kids pre-bar mitzvah,” he said.

Calling himself a “centrist” on the issue of women’s participation, Goldin said he believes strongly in advanced Torah education for women and “creating places of leadership for them within the Orthodox community that are unique and specific.” However, he added, “we should not attempt to break down role traditions.”

Goldin, who said he was “gratified” that he could concentrate on writing during his sabbatical in Israel three years ago, has published two books, “Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit” and “Unlocking the Torah Text: Shemot.” His third book, on Vayikra, will be out soon. (He will speak about and sign his books at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades at 8 p.m. on March 3.) He is also pleased that he has been able to get more involved in the Rabbinical Council of America.

“It’s good for the community as well,” he said, noting that he is now able to tell congregants about things happening outside the community that he might not otherwise have been aware of.

“I can’t believe the years have passed the way they have,” he said. His relationship with the synagogue has been “a wonderful shidduch. I’m grateful to God that we found each other in a fashion that seems to work.”

Goldin pointed to the teaching about Mordecai that he was liked by most of his brothers, not all.

“You do the best you can,” he said. “You do what you think is right and bring others along with you. The new building will enable us to do what we do even better — it’s an absolutely positive move.”

 
 

Ahavath Torah begins new chapter,  celebrates its past

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The main sanctuary. Photos by Jerry Szubin

Unity is the underlying theme for the formal dedication of Cong. Ahavath Torah’s two-story, 60,000-square-foot synagogue complex, planned for the first weekend in March and culminating in the shul’s annual dinner honoring Rabbi Shmuel and Barbara Goldin.

Yeshiva University President Richard Joel is scheduled to join the Englewood congregation that Shabbat as scholar in residence during services as well as at a Friday night Oneg Shabbat and Saturday afternoon seudah shlishit. A festive Shabbat morning service is to be led by Cantor Chaim Muhlbauer, with Joel delivering remarks to the community.

“President Joel has been instrumental in all our efforts in the last year,” said Drew Parker, Ahavath Torah’s co-president. “He was supportive of our fund-raising efforts and of our community’s unique approach to unity through welcoming many different minyanim and cultures under one roof.”

Parker was referring to Ahavath Torah’s embrace of diverse Orthodox prayer groupings to accommodate Sephardim and Ashkenazim, youth and adults, even early-risers and later-risers. This was one reason the new complex was designed with elements including four sanctuaries in the main building, a two-story wing for a 250-seat sanctuary, beit midrash, and social hall for the 75 families of the congregation’s Sephardic community; a ballroom; multipurpose rooms for Shabbat children’s groups, adult education, and small events; and two kitchens in order to handle more than one affair at the same time.

Goldin stressed that there is much “cross-pollination” among the various worshippers, who mingle in the shul’s great hallway after services. The new synagogue is large enough to include additional minyanim, too. “We’re entertaining the possibility of a family minyan, where young children might be more welcome,” said Goldin.

The “unity” theme is apt, as well, for an event capping the sometimes contentious five-year process that preceded the completion of the multimillion-dollar edifice.

Last summer, congregants learned that while the “hard cost” of construction was first estimated at $15.5 million, the actual price tag was $22 million, excluding “soft costs” for architect fees and rental of the climate-controlled tent that housed the congregation since the 2006 demolition of the old, sprawling mansion on the former Broad Avenue estate of Baroness Cassel Van Dorn in which the congregation had been based since 1960.

The project’s higher expense was partly due to the later inclusion of a mikvah with a private entrance. Expected to be completed in the next few months, as is the Sephardic center, the mikvah will house seven dressing rooms, two mikvah pools, and a separate pool for immersing cooking and eating utensils. Englewood has never before had sufficient ritual bath facilities for its Jewish population; the independent Englewood Mikva Association runs a small mikvah on the grounds of Cong. Shomrei Emunah on Huguenot Street.

Though the Ahavath Torah membership ultimately approved a 75 percent rise in dues and assumption of a permanent mortgage (the amount of which synagogue officers declined to specify), the lay and rabbinic leadership pledged to address any lingering resentments. Before the new building’s opening last Labor Day, Goldin commented to The Jewish Standard, “We have a lot of work to do, as we always have in a community like ours with disparate points of view.”

This week, Goldin reported that “there’s been a tremendous amount of positive energy generated upon moving into the new building. Our various minyanim are working out very nicely, and the general feel is that we’re home, that we’re in.”

Parker said he views the dedication festivities as an appropriate time to acknowledge the Goldins’ contributions to the immediate and greater community. The rabbi, an instructor of Bible and philosophy at Yeshiva University’s college for men, is also active in the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, SINAI Special Needs Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America; Israel Bonds; the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey; and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Bergen County.

Former Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes, an Ahavath Torah member, and the city council have all been invited to participate, along with rabbinic colleagues of Goldin. The dinner highlight is to be a video presentation featuring tributes to the rabbinic couple from participants in the shul’s various minyanim, as well as interviews with their children.

 
 

Different strokes: Englewood rebbetzin swims for charity

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From left are Swim4Sadna participants Cheryl Mandel, Barbara Goldin, Vivienne Glaser (coordinator), and Sharon Katz. Aside from Goldin, an Englewood resident, the other women live in the Gush Etzion region where Sadnat Shiluv is located.

Eighty-five women in red-and-yellow bathing caps waded into Lake Kinneret early on June 16 to “Swim4Sadna,” raising funds for an innovative private special-needs school south of Jerusalem. All but three of the swimmers were Israeli. One of the out-of-towners was Barbara Goldin, rebbetzin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.

“As you’re swimming, you see in front of you all these yellow and red ‘balls’ bopping up and down. It felt like a dream,” said Goldin.

In Israel this summer to visit friends and family, Goldin learned of Swim4Sadna when a fellow passenger in her sister-in-law’s car mentioned it. “As I am an avid swimmer, I was excited,” she said, “and when I heard it was for a tzedaka, I was hooked.”

She had never heard of Sadnat Shiluv (“Integrated Workshop”), a program in the Gush Etzion village of Rosh Tzurim that incorporates special-needs kindergartners through young adults into the greater community. The center provides therapeutic animal care and horseback riding, assisted living, and employment (see box).

“I was quite nervous because I didn’t know anyone else doing the swim, but I thought if I can raise awareness of this tzedaka, and help somehow, that would feel so great,” said Goldin, who e-mailed shul members asking them to sponsor her. A speech therapist at the Passaic County Elks Cerebral Palsy Treatment Center in Clifton, she has a particular affinity for the cause and quickly befriended Vivienne Glaser, the Sadnat Shiluv mother who organized the swimathon.

Glaser’s 19-year-old son lives in the first of several planned group residences and is about to begin a two-year vocational program. “My aim had been to find 50 friends to swim and have them get 50 sponsors each to help us build more desperately needed apartments,” said Glaser, a British native. “We’re trying to make this into an international learning center offering holistic solutions for a range of challenges.”

In the end, 85 swimmers participated, including Glaser, her daughters, and her 75-year-old mother. Each pledged to raise a minimum of 2,000 shekels (about $525) and pay her own expenses. (Tax-exempt credit-card donations are still being accepted through IsraelGives.org; enter “Sadnat Shiluv” in the search field on the home page.)

Goldin signed up for the shorter 1.5-kilometer (9/10 of a mile) option. “I was too intimidated to do the 3.5 [kilometer] and now I’m sorry,” she said the next day. “It was about an hour’s swim, and I wasn’t even that tired. It’s exhilarating to see the mountains as you’re going along doing the breast stroke. Next year, if I can do it again, I’ll do the 3.5. Maybe I can convince one or two of my friends to do it, too.”

Glaser does intend to make Swim4Sadna an annual event, and even hopes to offer a tourist extension package to attract more foreigners.

She got the idea from a long-running national charity swimathon at the Kinneret on the first Saturday of every September. As a Sabbath-observer, she was never able to participate. “I had seen the advertisements since I was 14, and at age 50 I decided to do something I had always wanted to do and make it benefit the Sadna,” she said.

Not only did she schedule it for a weekday, but also made it exclusively for women — and not just to accommodate Orthodox participants. “In Israel, 30 percent of sports activities are now women only, and that has nothing to do with being religious,” she said. “The combination of being women only and the excitement around something so unique made it such a positive experience.”

Since the swimmers had to hit the lake at 6 a.m., they stayed in the area the night before. Goldin, who has grandchildren in America and in Israel, was one of a handful of adults who opted to sleep on the beach rather than in a hotel. “At Camp Morasha, I loved overnights and the great outdoors, so being on the beach sounded cool. We had to be on the bus at 5 — it was like getting up early to raid another bunk.”

Her enthusiasm didn’t wane throughout the experience. “There is such an electricity doing something you love with so many other women. All of them were passionate swimmers and all of them wanted to help others.”

 
 
 
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