|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.”