In many ways, the Jewish Center of Teaneck is the prototypical post-World-War-II suburban synagogue, and the arc of its story – founded in 1933, it went up, up, up, a long peak, and then back down – is an encapsulated version of a particular strain of postwar American Judaism, which rocketed up and now is petering out.
It is a shul with a pool, a full-service Jewish center, the model that the Orthodox-turned-Conservative-turned-Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was credited with having championed. It is a vast building, big enough for the crowds that once filled it, but expensive to heat, cool, and maintain.
It was once an exemplar of the fluidity between religious movements. It had two longtime rabbis, who each left his stamp on the community. The first, Rabbi Judah Washer, was ordained by Yeshiva University, and the second, Rabbi David Feldman, who died on November 28, earned his smicha at the Jewish Theological Seminary, itself a place where Orthodox scholars flourished. The synagogue, which once was affiliated with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, adhered, throughout most of its history, to the only-in-America custom of allowing mixed seating but not counting women in the minyan.
At its peak, the Jewish Center, Teaneck’s oldest congregation and once its biggest, most prominent, and most influential, boasted 1,500 member families.
That was then. Now is another story.
In the last few years, the Jewish Center installed a mechitzah, and three years ago it joined the Orthodox Union. That might have been too little, too late; it might have been a miscalculation, it might have been a last doomed stand against the micro-demographics of its immediate neighborhood, which includes large institutions and main roads and few fully residential streets.
Those valiant efforts did not turn around the large ship that is the Jewish Center of Teaneck. With just 69 member families left, it seems to be sinking. In October, it let go its last rabbi, Lawrence Zierler, who had led it into the OU. It could no longer afford him.
Now, as we reported last week, the Jewish Center plans to sell itself – but not to the highest bidder. Instead, it plans to go to one of the lowest.
This is where our sympathy ends and our dismayed disbelief kicks in.
The Jewish Center’s building is estimated to be worth at least $5 million, quite possibly more. The Jewish Center’s board voted, 15 to 14 (yes, a shul with 69 familes has at least 29 people on its board) to go to Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah, a yeshiva high school for boys that has roots in both the centrist and the ultra-Orthodox worlds. The school, according to sources, will allow the congregation to continue independently, share responsibility for the building, and pay $1 million up front. It also would agree to pay $120,000 annually for ten years.
The other offer was from Chabad of Teaneck, which, we are told, was offering to pay even less, and to make up that shortfall with programming.
The offer from Holy Name Medical Center, the shul’s neighbor, was not even considered in that final vote.
That shocks and appalls us.
According to Holy Name’s president and CEO, Michael Maron, the hospital’s bid included its intention to pay the full appraised value for the building. “We would allow the congregation to continue to use the main sanctuary,” we reported him saying last week. “We would employ the rabbi for the congregation, jointly selected by the congregation and us.” The hospital would use the center’s pool and gym for its newly expanded physical therapy and fitness programs, it would use the classrooms for its nursing school, and it would offer programs specifically aimed at the Jewish community, like the Jewish Women’s Health Symposium and Brunch, featuring Dr. Sharyn Lewin and Dr. Joshua Gross, held at the shul on November 16.
“We would keep the Jewish heritage alive” at the synagogue, Mr. Maron said.
Why would anyone choose $1 million and vague promises over at least $5 million, offered in a professional manner, from a well-known and well-respected local institution, that also makes clear, in writing, the ways in which it will protect and nurture the failing (if not failed) Jewish Center’s autonomy and its very Jewishness?
Could it be, possibly, because Holy Name is not Jewish?
We believe that to be the case; we reported a board member as saying “There was a very strong consensus that the Jewish Center of Teaneck should not go to a non-Jewish organization.”
If it is true, it is scandalous. And it seems to be true.
Holy Name is a community institution. It is Roman Catholic, as is Mr. Maron, but it has a long history of reaching out to the Jewish community. Among many other things, it offers a Shabbat room to observant visitors, it strongly supports Israel and invests in Israel Bonds, and in February Mr. Maron will be honored at a dinner given by Sinai Schools. It has impeccable credentials.
Holy Name’s reasons for supporting the community are in part pragmatic – much of the local community is Jewish – but that is entirely legitimate.
To turn down Holy Name, which has proven itself over and over to be a good friend of the Jewish community, is a shame, both for the Jewish Center of Teaneck and for the rest of the Jewish community.
We urge the shul to reconsider.