A shul by any other name

A shul by any other name

Fort Lee synagogue will be ‘bridge of peace’

Then the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, now Congregation Gesher Shalom, was incorporated in 1950, it was the dream of the founding families to provide the growing community with a site that would combine religious, educational, and recreational programs. As a result, the original building contained not only a large sanctuary, chapel, and library, but a gymnasium, swimming pool, and health club as well.

Today however, "we function mainly as a synagogue," said Englewood resident Neal Merker, the shul’s president, explaining why the Conservative congregation decided on Aug. 17 to change its name. Merker, a longtime member and the son of a former synagogue president, said the congregation, with 400 member-units, had considered making such a change several times in the past.

Rabbi Andrew Warmflash, who has been with the synagogue for two years, said he did not know the congregation had discussed it before when he voiced his desire for the synagogue to have a new name. "Not only was the name a misnomer," he said, "but I thought it was important for the congregation to have a Hebrew name."

"The process of change is not easy," said Warmflash. "A board committee studied the issue, went through the United Synagogue and spoke with other shuls that had changed their names, and then recommended that we go ahead with it." According to Merker, the board then invited suggestions from the membership, and some 50 or 60 members suggested names. "People cared," he said, "and some came up with pretty novel ideas."

The words "gesher" and "shalom" were the most popular submissions, said Merker. Gesher Shalom (bridge of peace) was chosen because it was an apt "physical and metaphorical description," he said. Gesher, which means bridge, acknowledges the synagogue’s physical proximity to the George Washington Bridge. In addition, he said, "The congregation aspires to be a ‘bridge of peace’ among generations, to the local community, to Israel, and to God."

"The membership is very pleased with the choice," he added, noting that the standing sign in front of the building has already been changed. "The name change also signifies both to the congregation and the community that we are attempting to move with the times," he said, "that we are forward-thinking."

"We’re going through a period of renewal," said Warmflash, pointing out that the synagogue has changed both its siddur and chumash and has added improvements such as a computer lab and a renovated playground. "We’re coming into a new era."

Warmflash pointed out that Judaism has always found great significance in names. He noted, for example, that when God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai, He awarded them the names Abraham and Sara as a token of their new relationship with Him. Similarly, Jacob’s name was changed to Israel "to indicate his new status."

"In our tradition, names are viewed as revealing aspects of a person’s character," said Warmflash. "There is a saying in Hebrew: ‘Keshmo Kach Hu — As his name suggests, so is he.’ This is why many Jews have the custom of naming their children after deceased relatives. We use the names of our dear departed family members because we hope that some of their best qualities will be transferred to our children along with their names so that their spirits will continue to live."

Warmflash thinks the synagogue’s new name "reflects the spirit of renewal that continues to grow throughout our congregation. Gesher Shalom reflects our desire to build a bridge — to form connections — both among ourselves and between us and God, the Torah, and the Jewish tradition."

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