TEANECK Throughout its history, Temple Emeth has been a trendsetter in the Reform movement, said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Freelander will speak at the synagogue tonight as Emeth, Bergen County’s oldest Reform synagogue, kicks off its 60th anniversary celebration.
"They’ve always been the trendsetter for Jewish involvement, learning in general, and social involvement," said Freelander, whose wife is Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. "They’ve been the leaders in the county." (Barnert, which is also Reform, is 100 years older, but it is a latecomer to Bergen, moving from Paterson in 1987.)
Freelander said he will challenge Emeth congregants to strengthen the connection between American Reform Jews and Israel, specifically by urging more young congregants to go to Israel. Although Emeth has between 10 percent and ‘0 percent of its youth going on trips to Israel, he would like to see that increased to at least 80 percent.
"You can’t teach Israel and a feeling for Israel by talking about it," he said. "You really have to experience it."
Children have remained a central focus of the Reform movement and Emeth in particular, Freelander said.
"The founders of Emeth, Beth El in Closter, Sinai in Tenafly, were pediatric in their outlook," he said. "Religious school was king. They all built the religious school first and added on later."
Emeth has been at the forefront of education, he said, particularly in the 1980s when it led the effort to create the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism to keep post-b’nai mitzvah teenagers involved in Jewish education.
"Over the years, any time there’s going to be a new initiative, Emeth got there first," he said.
One of the problems facing the Reform movement is how to handle interfaith families. Reflecting on the past 60 years of the movement, Freelander said that when Emeth began, an interfaith marriage meant one between someone who was Reform and someone who was Conservative or Orthodox. Now, he said, between ‘5 percent and 40 percent of the families who join Reform shuls in Bergen County are mixed, Jewish and non-Jewish.
In Teaneck, however, Jewish demographics has shifted heavily toward the Orthodox in recent years, which has forced Emeth to redefine its target area something it has done a few times in its history.
"One of the main changes is we’ve gone from being a regional congregation in the ’40s to more of a Teaneck congregation over time, and then in the last decade or so we’ve become a regional congregation again," said Rabbi Steven Sirbu, who has served as Emeth’s religious leader since ‘003.
About 50 percent of the shul’s membership now live in Teaneck, while the rest come from Tenafly, Bergenfield, and other surrounding areas.
"Temple Emeth is trying to address the reality of Teaneck and Bergen County," he said. "Not a lot of potential Reform Jews are moving to Teaneck, so we are looking to attract members from other neighboring towns."
Emeth was founded in 1947 as the Bergen County Reform Temple. Its first service was held in the Oddfellow’s Auditorium in Hackensack on Sept. 14, 1947, and regular Friday night services began in October at the YM-YWHA in Hackensack. That December, it received a charter from the Union of Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.
The shul moved to Larch Avenue in Teaneck in 195′ and in 1957 to its present location on Windsor Road.
Rabbi Joshua Trachtenberg, who served as Emeth’s rabbi from 1951 until his sudden death in 1959, inspired the change of the synagogue’s name to Temple Emeth in 1955.
"He was committed to the scholarly pursuit of truth," Sirbu said. "In honor of this pursuit of truth, the temple was renamed." Rabbi Louis Sigel took over in 1960 and retired in 1999. He remained as rabbi emeritus until his death in ‘005. Two interim rabbis served Emeth until Sirbu arrived in ‘003.
In honor of its 50th anniversary in 1997, the congregation created its own prayer book called Siddur Emeth. It included innovations that were later incorporated into the Reform movement’s new siddur, Mishcan T’filah, such as the inclusion of the matriarchs in the Avot prayer and gender-neutral language in reference to God. Emeth will introduce Mishcan T’filah as its new prayerbook tonight.
Social justice, education, and creative worship have been and continue to be Emeth’s focus, Sirbu said.
"Emeth has always been the bastion of stability in Bergen County," Freelander said.
Other 60th anniversary events include a dinner dance in May, a concert with singer/songwriter Dan Nichols in March, and a concert on Jan. 13 by Emeth’s cantor, Ellen Tilem, celebrating her 13 years at the synagogue.