Bayonne is a very special place, according to Rabbi Jacob Benzaquen.
“It’s unique,” said Benzaquen, the newly named religious leader of Temple Emanu-El. “When people are born here or have lived here, they view themselves as ‘Bayonnites.’ There’s a strong affiliation even when people move away.”
That, he said, would explain why the egalitarian Conservative congregation – which has a history dating back more than 100 years – lists members who live all over the country on its roster.
Still, Benzaquen said, the community is “open and hungry for a new beginning.” The congregation – small, urban, and close to downtown – “has a real hunger to refocus, re-energize, and reconnect to Judaism.”
“I want to grow the community,” Benzaquen said.
“People are looking at Jersey City and Hoboken and seeing how they shifted dramatically due to a new influx of people. I think it will happen here – with the right kind of approach, and if there’s a desire on the part of different players in the community. There aren’t too many cities just half an hour from New York City where you can buy a house for $200,000.
“We’re not gentrified yet like Jersey City and Hoboken.”
But that, Benzaquen said, is because people who work in New York have not yet discovered the convenience of living in Bayonne.
Benzaquen, who comes to Bayonne from Kings Park Jewish Center in Smithtown on eastern Long Island, said he traveled all over the country looking at different congregations before accepting this one.
“I felt after the interview that this is a diamond in the rough - an overlooked community with enormous potential,” he said. “I think it will be realized.”
Noting that his congregants span all age groups, the rabbi said one of his planned projects is to connect the synagogue with the Jewish Journey project, an education initiative based on experiential learning.
“It’s really a wonderful program to reimagine Hebrew school in a visionary way,” he said, noting that it would allow the congregation to pool resources with other congregations to create the kind of Hebrew school no single congregation can support on its own.
“We have about 10 younger families who are already interested,” he said. “We want to create something more than the traditional [system] of teaching in front of the children.”
He also plans to offer what he called new and innovative programs for the High Holy Days and to establish partnerships with other local groups.
“We hope together as a community to foster a deeper relationship with God by partnering with individuals and institutions to creatively explore new avenues and approaches to making Judaism meaningful and relevant in people’s lives,” he said.
“Our partners include the Bayonne JCC, the Jewish Journey Project, Shine Yoga Studio, and the many wonderful, talented individuals who make up the Emanu-El and Bayonne Jewish and interfaith communities. We also hope to strengthen our relationship with some of Bayonne’s fine institutions such as Temple Beth Am, the Yeshiva Gedolah of Bayonne, Congregation Ohav Zedek, and others in the larger Hudson Jewish community.”
While his congregation has a large group of seniors, the synagogue nevertheless is committed to “opening their arms to creative programs and doing things differently,” he said, calling the congregation “open and welcoming.”
Facing the same challenges confronted by other synagogues – “people struggling in this economy, competing for people’s time and energy” – Benzaquen said it was important that synagogue resources be employed in the most effective way.
His own strengths, he said, include a love of Judaism, adaptability, and goal-orientation. Also, he said, “I’m blessed with the ability to inspire people in both the Jewish and secular community.” This, he said, has enabled him to bring in more people to the communities he has served.
“It’s a good fit,” he said of his new congregation. “They’re wonderful people, a down-to-earth community, extremely appealing across the board. And it’s not just the Jewish community. When you walk down the street, people say hello.”
Benzaquen’s name is Spanish; his family traces its roots back to Toledo. After the expulsion from Spain, the Benzaquens settled in Morocco.
He is a third-generation rabbi. His grandfather, the first in that line, worked in Mellila, Morocco; his father, Joseph, now is in Seuta, off the coast of Spain.
Benzaquen was born in England, where his father, there to study at a branch of the Gateshead Yeshiva, married his mother, Hannah Bensimon, who was studying at a seminary in France. The family came to the United States when Jacques was 12. (His accent is American, a matter of choice, he said.)
He has Orthodox s’michah, with a concentration in talmudic law, and Conservative ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. He also earned a master’s degree in counseling and guidance from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education.
He shakes off the idea of denominationalism, calling it Christian at its core. “I’m a Sephardic rabbi,” he said. “That tradition is unique, because it is based on Maimonidean philosophy that was trumped by a reactionary philosophy, and now we have factionalism,” he said.
Benzaquen said that while he wants to grow the community, he also wants to help foster among his congregants a deeper relationship with God, “so that God becomes relevant in people’s lives. Living Jewishly is something of beauty and pleasure. That’s what we want people to rediscover.”