|Lisa and Rabbi Sruli Dresdner|
Questioned about his synagogue’s tagline, “the friendliest temple in town,” Rabbi Sruli Dresdner embraces the sentiment.
“It’s definitely true,” he said. “Anybody who walks in is treated as royalty.”
“This is the most eclectic congregation I’ve ever seen,” he said of his North Bergen Conservative synagogue, founded some 80 years ago. “There are older people who have been members forever, younger families, and members who joined over the last five or six years and have become a big part of the shul.” He noted that Cuban Jews make up a significant part of the membership as well.
Dresdner, born into a chasidic family, has taken quite a Jewish journey. Spending the first part of his life studying Torah and Talmud seven days a week, according to his synagogue’s website, he attended a yeshiva high school, Torah V’Daas, in Brooklyn, followed by four years at the Denver Talmudical Seminary. In 1982, he received a bachelor’s degree in Judaic studies from the seminary, as well as private Orthodox rabbinic ordination.
Later, he attended Fordham Law School, and then some 15 years ago he became a full-time klezmer musician and Jewish educator. Throughout this time, he honed his synagogue skills, serving as a high holy day cantor and occasional rabbi.
For the past 12 years, he was the religious leader of a congregation in New City, New York.
With his wife, Lisa, a violinist and singer, Dresdner developed what he describes as a unique Kabbalat Shabbat service based on traditional niggunim – wordless melodies – and Yiddish music. The couple have performed that service at synagogues throughout the world. In addition, they have been featured on NPR and PBS and have appeared at many Jewish music festivals.
“Lisa and I have been playing together professionally for 15 years,” Dresdner said. “We’ve played at every temple in northern New Jersey.”
Dresdner is hoping the Kabbalat Shabbat service will draw people to the North Bergen synagogue.
“I want to energize Friday night services,” he said, noting that he and Lisa begin the service with a few pieces of klezmer music and Yiddish singing. In addition, he has introduced a Friday night spaghetti dinner, “so people can hang around after services, eat, and enjoy.”
He said he is seeing a positive response, “with people choosing to come to hear music, sit around at the meal, and talk.”
After the high holy days he will introduce yet another element, holding a Tot Shabbat every Friday night as well. While the synagogue does not have a Hebrew school, Dresdner would like to make the shul a place for young families.
There are, however, demographic challenges.
“There’s no longer a Jewish community where the temple is,” said Dresdner, who took over the North Bergen pulpit from Rabbi Ilan Glazer. “But we’re near Edgewater, where there are young Jewish families. We’re hoping to connect.” He noted that he also is in close touch with the United Synagogue in Hoboken.
Dresdner and his wife have three adult children as well as 3-year-old twins.
“My older children are all musicians,” he said, noting that his 22-year-old son is a jazz saxophone player and songwriter, his 18-year-old daughter is a bass player, and his 17-year-old son is a “world-class pianist.”
“I grew up in the chasidic world and was exposed to some of most amazing deeply spiritual melodies,” he said. “I firmly believe that music is the most direct way to connect spirituality with the community and the synagogue.”