Steve Fulop, Jersey City’s first-term mayor, just won re-election in a landslide; he got 78 percent of the vote.
Mr. Fulop, a Democrat who was a Wall Street trader before September 11, and then joined the Marines, and then became mayor of the state’s second largest city, has much to celebrate. This Friday night, he’ll celebrate something else as well. Shabbat.
He’ll be at what is billed as the Rooftop Shabbat dinner, in a space overlooking the Jersey City waterfront, as one of many guests of Mesorah NJ, an outreach organization with a growing presence among the Jews moving into the city.
Of course, Mr. Fulop is a natural at a Shabbat dinner. He’s the grandson of Holocaust survivors, the son of an IDF veteran, and a onetime student at the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, where he grew up, and then the Solomon Schechter School of Union and Essex (although he left for public school because he craved soccer).
Today, he said, “I’m obviously very secular, and if anybody reaches out I go; I have done a lot of different events with different parts of the Jewish community.
“I do this for a lot of different communities” — not all of them Jewish – “but I am Jewish. My background is a large part of who I am.”
The city is increasingly Jewish as well, he said. “We have three synagogues; we have a very large community of secular professionals who identify as Jewish. Many are young, but there are more families here now.” There is also a growing chasidic presence in southern Jersey City, he added, as families move there from Brooklyn.
The invitation to Shabbat dinner — which is open to the public (but by the time you read this it’s too late to go) — says that it will involve specialty cocktails and gourmet food. It’s aimed at unaffiliated young professionals.
Rabbi Yehoshua Lewis and his wife, Esther, who live in Highland Park, founded and run Mesorah NJ, which focuses on Highland Park and now on Jersey City as well. “We stay in Jersey City for Shabbat and do Shabbat dinners there every five or six weeks,” Rabbi Lewis said. “We have a social event once a month, and a lecture. We have weekly learning sessions in apartments, or challah baking. Esther does challah baking with the women, and I do something with the guys, Scotch and schmooze and talk about Torah topics or something about current events. Last week we talked about anti-Semitism.
“Esther also teaches Torah topics, and how to make yourself better.”
Mesorah NJ also holds events on Chanukah, Purim, and Pesach.
“It’s mostly for people who are unaffiliated,” Rabbi Lewis said. “They don’t go to shul on Shabbes. They are not found in traditional places. It is my job to connect them at whatever level they are at.”
Mesorah NJ does not list affiliations with institutions on its website, but it is Orthodox, and loosely affiliated with Meor and Aish, Rabbi Lewis said. He grew up modern Orthodox in Great Neck, graduated from MTA, Yeshiva University’s high school, and “probably in practice am what you would call yeshivish or right-wing YU – but that puts me in a box, and I don’t like being in a box,” he said. He began doing outreach at Rutgers in 2005, and “then we had so many alumni in Jersey City, and I realized through speaking to them that there is nothing going on there, in Jersey City.
“You try to create a Jewish community in college, and there is a natural community there. But when they leave college — and people are not getting married any more, and they are single into their 30s, and there is no community — so they are floating, and losing their Jewish identity.
“So since September 2015, we’ve been in Jersey City. Most of the people who come to our events are in their 20s and early 30s.
“Last year Mayor Fulop came to Shabbat dinner, and we had 90 people then. The Chanukah event had like 130, 140 people. We made a Chanukah casino.”
Mesorah’s events are either small-scale and intimate, meeting in people’s apartments, or larger and more glittery, at the Rooftop, an event space on 50 Regent Street. “It’s got a river view, and you can see the Statue of Liberty,” Rabbi Lewis said. “There’s a beautiful deck, and you can walk out on it. When it’s nice out, we do Kabbalat Shabbat inside and then go out on the deck for kiddush, and then come inside for the meal.
“We bring a sefer Torah up and make a Shabbat morning minyan, which as far as I know, except for Chabad on the other side of the city, is the only Orthodox minyan in Jersey City.”
He loves when people come to his Shabbat dinners, but he also loves when they graduate from them. He tells the story of one man who used to come to dinner, but then said he couldn’t make the next one. Why? “He said, ‘We and a few other couples are making our own Shabbat dinner.’”
Mesorah NJ is at www.mesorahnj.com.