A ‘synagogue without walls’ in Fair Lawn
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A ‘synagogue without walls’ in Fair Lawn

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State Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38) spoke at one of the havurah’s planning sessions.

When Rabbi Jonathan Woll created the Progressive Havurah of Northern New Jersey, he did so to fill a niche.

“We are going to go out into the secular Jewish community and try to do the work that’s sometimes difficult for synagogues to do,” he said. “What we’re trying to do [with the havurah] is pick up a niche that might not go to any synagogue.”

Describing the group as a “synagogue without walls,” Woll noted that the havurah is less committed “to any one building” than it is to “the perception of family.”

Woll served for more than 19 years as the religious leader of Fair Lawn’s Temple Avoda – which formally merged with Temple Sholom in River Edge earlier this year, creating Temple Avodat Shalom. At the time of the merger, the rabbi said he envisioned the creation of a havurah with “worship, educational, and social components,” offering a monthly service and additional social events throughout the month.

The resulting havurah – formally incorporated in October 2008 by Woll, Fair Lawn residents Leonard Miller, Diane Hochman, and George Polk, and Hawthorne resident Richard Goldberg – “welcomes members of the gay and lesbian community as well as those who consider themselves Jewish but may not have formally converted,” said Woll. “We’re reaching out to all who look upon themselves as Jews,” and will also welcome their families, who may not be Jewish.

Woll said the new group, which has been meeting in the homes of its 20 members, plans to hold one Friday evening event each month as well as one Shabbat morning service.

“We’re still a work in progress,” he said, explaining that Friday evening gatherings include both dinner and a “Jewish conversation.” The havurah has a Torah on permanent loan – “a condition of the merger,” he said – and uses Reform prayerbooks.

When the turnout for a havurah event is expected to be large ““ the group planned to hold its first bat mitzvah celebration on May 16 ““ Woll looks for a larger facility.

“That event will take place in the sanctuary of the Van-Riper Ellis Baptist Church in Fair Lawn,” he explained, adding that the pastor there “was sensitive and lovely,” offering to “remove christological symbols” for the Jewish group.

In addition to scheduled Shabbat events, the havurah hopes to hold a Memorial Day barbecue and a dairy dinner on the first night of Shavuot. In June the havurah will begin a Books and Bagels monthly book discussion group as well as a Friends and Film program.

“We believe a liberal Jewish presence in Fair Lawn is essential,” said Woll, explaining his desire to preserve a Reform presence in Fair Lawn and attract those Jews who either have never belonged to a synagogue or who left and did not return.

“Some people have told me, ‘This is what we were looking for,'” he said.

Woll noted that the group has already reached out to Paterson’s Eastside Neighborhood Association in an effort to find Jews still living in that town.

“We know that they’re there,” he said. “We want to find out how they want to be involved.”

The havurah dues structure has been set at $18 per month per person, said Woll, who noted that he hopes to attract young families and eventually establish a family education program.

Right now, he said, the group needs “to grow as quickly as we can.” If, as he hopes, he is able to attract a cadre of younger families, the synagogue will create “separate cells,” based on age groups and interests.

While the current economic climate has put everyone at a disadvantage, he said, it also has had the effect of spurring people “to look for community.”

“We have been successful in providing the sense that we have something they can depend on,” he said.

For additional information about the Progressive Havurah of Northern New Jersey, call (201) 652-7061 or e-mail info@havurahnnj.org.

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