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The Jewish Center of Teaneck marks a milestone 80 years after its inception. Photos courtesy Jewish Center of Teaneck

When the Jewish Center of Teaneck began more than 80 years ago, Jews were not allowed to buy property in the blocks comprising the township’s former Phelps estate. A gentile had to front the transaction for the small group of synagogue pioneers.

Today, of course, Teaneck is one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the United States. And the formerly unaffiliated synagogue that started it all is formalizing another milestone in its history ““-membership in the Orthodox Union – on Sunday evening at a banquet where the rabbi and his wife will be honored by the OU’s NCSY youth movement.

Rabbi Lawrence and Berni Zierler are to receive the Ezra Ben Zion Lightman Memorial Award in recognition of more than 30 years of Jewish communal service.

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Rabbi Lawrence and Berni Zierler to be honored at banquet.

The rabbi told the Jewish Standard that the honor affords an opportunity to recognize his wife “as my partner in the work we’ve done to transform the synagogue. It’s an evening for the entire community.”

The couple came to the Center in 2006 as a move toward Orthodoxy already was in progress. “This was the mother congregation of Teaneck,” Rabbi Zierler said. He was ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1985.

In its heyday, the center had more than 1,000 member families and set the tone for Jewish life in town. That was particularly true after the 1953 arrival of its third rabbi, the late Judah Washer, sent by Yeshiva University to shore up Jewish life in Teaneck.

The fact that the sanctuary lacked a mechitza (the divider between men and women that signifies Orthodox worship) did not become an issue until Teaneck gradually became a magnet for modern Orthodox families and congregations.

“We were unaffiliated since the 1970s, after breaking with [the Conservative] United Synagogue,” Zierler said. “The center was a comfortable common place to meet the needs of the whole community. Eventually, understandably, people wanted something to fit the Orthodox model.”

In June 2011, a two-thirds majority of members voted in favor of installing a mechitza. The Jewish Center applied for affiliation with the OU in January 2012, Zierler said, “once the needs of the people who preferred a non-mechitza environment were resolved.”

About half of those 25 to 30 center members who voted against the mechitza ultimately opted to join a Conservative synagogue, while the rest remained.

“There was an organic transformation that was taking place,” said Zierler, who serves as the Jewish chaplain to the Teaneck Fire Department and president of the Teaneck Clergy Council. “We gave it time for people to get their bearings.”

Zierler stressed that though he feels OU membership is important for the community and the congregation, “we don’t want to forget the history of this shul. What’s been lost in the transformation is that at one time everyone davened under one roof though it was not perfect for everyone.”

It was the Jewish Center that donated a Torah scroll to the fledgling Congregation Bnai Yeshurun on the other side of town 50 years ago; Bnai Yeshurun now is Teaneck’s largest congregation. It was Washer who made such inroads as winning the right of Jewish physicians to practice at Holy Name Hospital, persuading the board of education to put the high holy days on the school vacation calendar, and gathering support to build the township’s mikvah, or ritual bath.

“Proud as we are of our community, it was built on the back of a lot of hard work,” Zierler said. The synagogue now has about 200 member families, some two dozen of whom have joined since the mechitza went up.

Ironically, the Zierlers are being honored by a teen movement at a time when the Jewish Center does not have many teenagers. “Our youth is mostly 2- and 3-year-olds in our Kinder Shul program,” the rabbi said. “We’re building from the bottom up.”

However, the Zierlers are longtime supporters of NCSY. Berni Zierler, nee Breen, was president of her NCSY chapter in St. Louis, later becoming a national advisor. Now a physician’s assistant, she was inducted into NCSY’s Ben Zakkai Honor Society in 1980 and has actively supported its work in raising scholarship money to help NCSYers continue their Jewish education after high school or attend NCSY summer programs.

“Berni Breen was marked for NCSY greatness at her first event as a 14-year-old,” said David Luchins, co-chairman of Sunday night’s event at the Sheraton New York. “As a chapter president and regional officer, she demonstrated the maturity and charisma that made her such an effective advisor, role model, and rebbetzin in the years that followed. The role she and Rabbi Larry have played in the Jewish Center of Teaneck’s historic transformation deserves our admiration and thanks.”

Berni Zierler reflected that her long history with NCSY instilled an appreciation for the work of the OU parent body.

“When we would go to national events we got to meet all the OU leaders,” she said. “They treated us not like children but like their next generation, making connections and relationships that have kept me in allegiance to the OU.”

Jewish Center President Sanford Hausler described Berni Zierler as a universally well-liked “strong right hand” of the rabbi and a respected woman in her own right for her communal and professional endeavors.

“It’s a great time for the center, with many opportunities to service the community. Under the religious guidance of Rabbi Zierler, we’re going to do very well,” Hausler said.