A community marriage

A community marriage

Beth El of North Bergen, Temple Israel of Cliffside Park unite

Congregants carry sifrei Torah from their old home to the motorcade that will take them to their new one. (Courtesy of Debbie Beeber)
Congregants carry sifrei Torah from their old home to the motorcade that will take them to their new one. (Courtesy of Debbie Beeber)

There is always some sadness in new beginnings, because you can’t start something without leaving something behind, giving something up.

Even the longed-for birth of a healthy child marks the end of a pregnancy and the unrepeatable intimacy of a mother and her unborn child.

But the sadness, that tinge of the bittersweet, is overwhelmed by the joy and wild excitement of the future, of possibilities, and of hope.

A newly unfurled banner announces the shul’s new name.
A newly unfurled banner announces the shul’s new name. (Debbie Beeber)

On Sunday, Temple Beth El of North Bergen and Temple Israel Community Center of Cliffside Park both ceased to exist and Beth El left its longtime home. Completing a 19-month process, the two Conservative shuls, at home in Cliffside Park, inaugurated themselves as Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades.

“We had an entire weekend of events,” said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, who led Temple Israel and now fills the same role at Beth Israel.

On Shabbat, Temple Israel honored its longtime board members — the board used to have 13 members but the new shul will have 12, six originally from North Bergen, six from Cliffside Park. A “spectacular” Kiddush vanished quickly; it had to be divided about 85 ways, Rabbi Engelmayer said.

On Sunday afternoon there was a closing ceremony at the 93-year-old Beth El, where many of its longtime members talked about their memories at what Rabbi Engelmayer called a “ceremony of closure.” It culminated in a havdalah, where Rabbi Engelmayer used wine, spices, and the light of a braided candle to mark the separation of one kehillah kedoshah — a holy community, Beth El — from something else holy, its building. “Then we removed the sifrei Torah” — the Torah scrolls — “from the main ark, and we went downstairs to the smaller sanctuary and removed the sefer Torah from there, and then we marched out onto Hudson Avenue.

“As we walked out with the sifrei Torah, there was a chuppah” — a wedding canopy — “waiting outside the door, and in front of the chuppah there was a banner with a new name.

“We had three shofarot sounding a long tekiyah gedolah” — the piercing wail that enters your soul — “and a klezmer clarinetist, Alan Sweifach.

The sifrei Torah rode to their new home in an open covertible on a glorious summer day. (Peter D. Savitt)
The sifrei Torah rode to their new home in an open covertible on a glorious summer day. (Peter D. Savitt)

“The police had closed off Hudson Avenue. We lined up with our cars and went by motorcade. The lead car was a convertible, so the three sifrei Torah and the three carriers sat there, with the top down, and the motorcade proceeded from North Bergen to Cliffside Park, under police escort.

“At Cliffside Park, we marched into our building.

“The sifrei Torah were held by members of Beth El, the chuppah was held by members of Temple Israel, and as we marched toward the front of the building, a tarp that covered the new banner was taken down.

“We put the sifrei Torah into the ark. There was a klezmer band playing” — Mr. Sweifach’s Hester Street Troupe.

After he installed the new officers, and because a merger is a marriage between two entities, each with its own heart and spirit — and with any luck an understanding of each other’s heart and spirit — Rabbi Engelmayer performed a wedding of sorts.

“We put the chuppah in the back, between the pews, and I asked everybody to come forward, walk around the room, go under the chuppah, and go back to their seats,” Rabbi Engelmayer said. “Then we moved the chuppah to the bimah, and I had the two presidents come up and stand under it. I did a wedding ceremony; I rewrote the Sheva Brachot” — the seven blessings said under the chuppah and at various other times during the first seven days of a marriage.

Co-presidents Roselyn Rauch and Craig Bassett stand together under the chuppah at the newly named Congregation Beth El of the Palisades. (Debbie Beeber)
Co-presidents Roselyn Rauch and Craig Bassett stand together under the chuppah at the newly named Congregation Beth El of the Palisades. (Debbie Beeber)

The two presidents, Craig Bassett of Beth El and Roselyn Rauch of Temple Israel, now are Beth Israel’s co-presidents.

“It’s sad to close a synagogue, but we can’t focus on that aspect of it,” Mr. Bassett, who lives in North Bergen, said. “We have to focus on the continuity, which is central to who we are as a people.”

Mr. Bassett and his wife have belonged to Beth El for 12 years. When they joined, it already was in decline as the area’s demographics changed, he said. The shul tried to change — it went from traditional to egalitarian, “to recalibrate ourselves to become more in line with the mainstream Conservative movement,” he said. That didn’t work. As membership dwindled, so did the congregation’s financial resources. “We tried our best, but eventually we reached a point where we realized that a merger was the best way for us to continue,” he said. “We did not want to just dissolve the community. It was started in 1923. That is a legacy, and as someone relatively new at the synagogue, I felt we had to carry it on.

“It was a matter of figuring out what our best options were, and we were very fortunate to have Temple Israel in Cliffside, just five minutes from us. It is an egalitarian Conservative synagogue with an incredible rabbi — a very similar community, but larger and in somewhat better financial standing.

“There are merger situations where the community honestly are kind of reluctant. They are kind of forced into it. They go down the path, but they are operating separately, and then they merge, and then there are problems, because they really didn’t get to know each other.

“I think we have avoided that — I sure hope we have, but I think we have. We began by collaborating on services, holding joint services on Shabbat, the High Holidays, a Passover seder. Doing those things together brought us together, allowed us to really know each other, start friendships, and form relationships.”

“The ceremony was very emotional,” Ms. Rauch said. “It was heartbreaking to some people, because they had been so involved in the shul” — Beth El — “for their entire lives.

“But they realize that times have changed, and although the building is closing, the spirit, the ruach, is just moving on and joining with Temple Israel.”

Ms. Rauch is not atypical of Temple Israel members — she and her husband live in Washington Township; they were drawn there by Rabbi Engelmayer, her teacher in a Melton class. “We went there one Shabbat, to see what it was like — and we never left,” she said. It is that spirit she hopes will inspire Beth Israel.

Klezmer clarinetist Alan Swiefach plays at the celebration. (Debbie Beeber)
Klezmer clarinetist Alan Swiefach plays at the celebration. (Debbie Beeber)

The North Bergen building, no longer holy, is under contract to a church. Beth Israel hopes to use the money on programming and outreach. “We need to reach out to younger families, and to adults as well,” Rabbi Engelmayer said. “There are all kinds of programs that we could and should be doing, and some market research that we should and could be doing, but we never had the resources. Our goal is to do our utmost to reach out and bring more people into the shul.

“In Conservative Judaism, it is very hard to define yourself, when the answer to every halachic question is yes, no, or maybe. I think that’s actually had a very serious effect. Why do people run to Chabad, or to Buddhism, or to anything else? What they are longing for is meaning. For answers. Judaism doesn’t have answers. We have a lot of questions. We also too often don’t emphasize the answers that we do have.

“We do have a message. We have the best message of all. But we don’t spread that message.

“I think a synagogue should be willing to be experimental, but should not be afraid to talk about the things that need to be talked about.” Chief among them, he added, is God, a concept — a truth, he would say — from which most liberal Jewish leaders run away, but toward whom most seekers are drawn. God is at the heart of all Judaism; give God up and you give it all up, he said.

Rabbi Engelmayer and Beth Israel’s presidents hope to draw unaffiliated Jews from the edge of the Palisades — North Bergen, Edgewater, Cliffside Park, Fort Lee. The so-called Shabbus — the van that goes up and down that spine on Shabbat, stopping only at prearranged spots, stopping always at those prearranged spots, never waiting, never deviating, providing people who are shomer Shabbat but live outside walking distance a chance to get to shul — will continue to ply its route. “I am not going to allow the Shabbus to go into a place where we do not have members,” Rabbi Engelmayer said. “I am not trying to raid anybody’s shul.” Beth Israel has members in all those towns, he added.

“We have a vision for the new synagogue,” Mr. Bassett said. “We want to be there for the long run. We believe that there are a lot of unaffiliated Jews in the area.

“As we know from the Pew study, the way people practice Judaism is different from the way it was when our two legacy synagogues were established. We need to adapt. We need to evolve, so that we remain relevant.

“It would not be relevant to stop being egalitarian Conservative Jews, but we must understand that people live their lives differently than they did 50, 100 years ago. We have to evolve the way we approach them, how we interact with them. We have to give the unaffiliated people we approach a reason to be engaged.”

“We are looking forward to bringing in younger couples and children, and to the rebirthing of our Hebrew school,” Ms. Rauch said. “We are reaching out to young families and to empty-nesters.

“We are a hidden gem,” she said. “We want them to know about us. It is a challenge — but it is an exhilarating challenge.”

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