Temple Beth El of North Bergen charts new course with new rabbi
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Temple Beth El of North Bergen charts new course with new rabbi

87-year-old Conservative synagogue goes egalitarian

After years of moving closer to Orthodoxy, Temple Beth El of North Bergen is charting an egalitarian direction in a move to stay afloat and recently hired Rabbi Ilan Glazer to lead the 87-year-old shul.

Beth El, which started in North Bergen in 1923, is not a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the international umbrella organization of Conservative congregations, but identifies as Conservative. Glazer led High Holiday services at the synagogue in 2006, 2007, and 2009, and on Aug. 1 he became the congregation’s full-time religious leader. Glazer is a senior rabbinical student with Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, started by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former disciple of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

“There’s a nice, warm energy here at Temple Beth El,” Glazer told The Jewish Standard. “The demographics were not kind to this area, and it was clear that the community needed some new energy, new outreach, and programming.”

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Rabbi Ilan Glazer is the new religious leader of Temple Beth El of North Bergen. The 87-year-old synagogue recently became egalitarian. Courtesy Ilan Glazer

Last week, the synagogue held the first of what are to become monthly Shabbat dinners. Also in the works are weekly Torah study, movie nights, meditation, and field trips.

“We’re starting new programming to get people invested in the temple,” Glazer said. “We’re starting to do all the things most shuls do, but this one hasn’t done in some time.”

Glazer, 31, now lives in an apartment in the shul, which the acting president, Craig Bassett, said makes the rabbi’s role similar to that of a Chabad rabbi who turns his home into the synagogue and invests himself in growing the community. Bassett said he hopes Glazer will reach out not only to unaffiliated Jews, but also to the wider Hudson County community, to increase the synagogue’s visibility.

“It would be easy to plan events that appeal to existing members, but they have to appeal to younger people and children,” he said. “We want these younger people in our area with children to come and feel comfortable bringing their children, and for the children to have something to do and get something out of it. If we can make it a full family event, it’ll be enjoyable by all and that will help us be successful.”

An Orthodox rabbi from Brooklyn, Moshe Fetman, had been coming to Beth El weekly for Shabbat for 16 years. The synagogue remained Conservative and never put in a mechitza, but services leaned more and more toward Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the membership that had at one point numbered more than 200 families, had dwindled to about 40.

“We’re still going to be a Conservative synagogue, but just upgrade ourselves so that we are a better reflection of our community and can better appeal to the needs and preferences of this new Jewish population in Hudson County,” Bassett said. “I thought that would be our only path forward.”

The change in direction was spurred by what Bassett said was a recognition that the synagogue’s “days were numbered.”

The board had investigated merger possibilities, but nothing materialized. It then looked to the biggest synagogue in Hudson County, the Conservative egalitarian United Synagogue of Hoboken, and decided Beth El had to change to attract new people.

In June, the synagogue became egalitarian, Fetman resigned, and Glazer arrived in August.

“What we realized we needed to do was take a different approach and stop leaning Orthodox and turning off people who may be interested in finding a synagogue, but then finding our synagogue didn’t speak to them,” Bassett said. “What we needed to do was move ourselves back to the mainstream of the Conservative movement and update our identity and create programming that would appeal to and interest these unaffiliated Jews.”

Friday night’s Shabbat dinner drew about almost 30 people, including some new faces. A handful of members have left because they were uncomfortable with egalitarianism, Glazer said, but the majority appear pleased with the new direction.

“It’s been lovely to see the number of women coming up to the Torah for the first time in their lives,” he said. “There’s a new spirit of energy and vibrancy here at the synagogue, which we haven’t had here in some time.”

See www.templebethelofnorthbergen.org for more information.

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