Cong. Beth El is the only synagogue in Rutherford, tucked away on a residential stretch of Montross Avenue. Since the 1950s, the formerly Conservative shul has been housed in the same tree-shaded Queen Anne mansion – inconspicuous behind shade trees on a street lined with spacious, well maintained homes.
But this now modern Orthodox congregation of about a dozen families has quietly succeeded in establishing an eruv with a three- to four-mile perimeter, half a mile wide. At 5 p.m. today, the borough’s mayor, John F. Hipp, will issue the formal proclamation declaring its existence.
Although he praises the support he received from the mayor and the synagogue board, the person most responsible for this feat is Rabbi Nossan Schuman, a serious, slightly built father of five who came to Rutherford last August – less than a year ago – with a mission. “I had previous experience with creating an eruv at my last posting, in Indianapolis,” Schuman explained. Beth El became Orthodox 15 years ago, when members saw young congregants leaving and realized attendance had plateaued. “They knew that ultimately, growth would depend on an eruv,” the rabbi added, “so three years ago they had a fund-raiser, but the project never got propelled into actuality.”
Just across the river from Passaic, with buses and trains to New York and direct access to New Jersey Transit’s Secaucus Junction station, Rutherford has begun attracting young professionals. With the eruv, it’s hoped that some of them will be Jewish, open to modern Orthodox observance, and interested in living in a small close-knit community that is only a mile or two away from the crowds and the commerce of busy Passaic Park. Right now, the congregation is composed of a wide range of Jews, some who have been congregants since before the conversion – “some who are shomer Shabbos and some who are not. Everyone is welcome,” the rabbi said. “We respect each other and share a belief in the value of Torah. We are nonjudgmental; people are free to grow.”
While establishing an eruv in Bergen County in less than a year may seem like a major accomplishment, Schuman’s only complaint is that the process took longer than he expected. “Between getting the permissions from the utility companies and attending borough meetings – even the construction – every single component took longer,” he said.
Another element was the groundwork, done by the rabbi himself “going around town by bicycle and car, from telephone pole to telephone pole,” he recalled, “and a couple of times, being stopped by the Rutherford police for suspicious activity.”
Thanks to his previous experience, Schuman was able to keep costs down by making an effort to use telephone poles that already had covers, which minimized the cost of attaching a lechi, a post to hold the eruv in place.
“It’s a good skill to have,” he laughed, “but once you get involved in eruvin, you never look at a telephone pole the same way!” (For a map of the eruv, go to jstandard.com.)
A native of Forest Hills, N.Y., Schuman grew up, he said, “in an assimilated family.” He developed an interest in Torah as a freshman at the University of Michigan, and returned to New York to study first at NYU, then at Yeshiva University, and finally, for nine years, at Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, where he was ordained. His first posting, however, was to Santa Barbara, a seaside mecca for tourists and laid-back Californians. But Schuman found the natives to be open to spirituality, and he and his wife Pessy discovered that they liked helping people “develop a path to Judaism.” In fact, 13 Santa Barbarans came to him seeking conversion not related to marriage, he said, “and all but one followed through.”
His next post, in Youngstown, Ohio, was also a major change from Brooklyn. Again, it was an opportunity to provide many with their first exposure to what he describes as “the depth of a Torah class or the splendor and joy of a Shabbos meal.”
But after Indianapolis, the Schumans decided it was time to find a community that provided good Jewish schools for their three girls and two boys now ranging from 5 to 13 1/2. Rutherford gave them all the perks of Passaic’s schools without the growing urban atmosphere.
Unfortunately, his children must also seek friendships in Passaic, since Beth El, at present, includes no other families with children even near their age. The board is applying for membership to the Orthodox Union, but how does a synagogue survive both physically and spiritually with so few congregants for so many years?
“It survives,” the rabbi said, “because it’s able to rent out rooms to a school and the gym to a winter baseball camp, so the building is sort of self-supporting.” But, he acknowledged, “it’s amazing it has survived. It seems there has been a will for this synagogue to persist, so we’re hoping for a rebirth.”