Incorporated 65 years ago as the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, Congregation Gesher Shalom has sold its Anderson Avenue building for $6 million to Onnuri Church, the Conservative synagogue’s tenant for the past six years.
The sale, which closed on June 1, stipulates that the JCC of Fort Lee has the option to remain there for up to four years. The synagogue, which has occupied the building since 1954, has formed a committee to seek alternative sites in and around the borough.
“Our home and heritage is in Fort Lee, so our desire is not to move very far at all,” said Marvin Josif, co-president of the shul’s board of trustees. “We were not actively seeking to sell the property, but Onnuri Church broached the subject, which led to talks and then an offer, and we realized it was an exciting opportunity for us.
“With the proceeds of the sale, we can now afford to purchase a modern building, a facility that’s right for us. We have big plans for our future. A new location is really just part of the whole picture.”
The congregation began with 38 charter members and now has about 300 member units. Nearly half of those members live in the borough; another 30 percent live in adjacent towns — Cliffside Park, Edgewater, Englewood, and Englewood Cliffs. Half the membership is 70 or older, while 10 percent is 40 and under. One-quarter of the members have been on the rolls for 25 years or more. Fully 60 percent have been members for 10 years or more.
“Our goal is to redevelop a property or build something that will appeal to our existing congregants and attract new families to join our congregation and Hebrew school,” said Rabbi Kenneth A. Stern, the congregation’s spiritual leader since July 2008.
Mr. Josif said that given Conservative Judaism’s “tremendous decline” throughout the country, “it’s time to have a fresh approach and make something valuable to the congregation and the community. This opportunity puts us in a well-funded position of change that will allow us to make this the place we really want it to be. We must position ourselves for the next 65 years to be a successful, thriving congregation.”
The religious school, which now has an enrollment of close to 60 children from kindergarten through bar/bat mitzvah age, is a primary area of focus. Mr. Josif said its administrators have been working with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey to incorporate progressive technology and pedagogy.
Mr. Josif also noted that the congregation’s first temporary headquarters in 1950 was in the Church of the Good Shepherd, while meetings and religious school classes were conducted in the Masonic Temple. In a sense, then, the sale of the Anderson Avenue facility closes a circle.
Rabbi Stern said that selling to a church “is far preferable than having the shul building turned into a warehouse, as has often occurred, or into a florist shop, as happened to the small shul of my father-in-law’s youth. Obviously, the most likely — and, I believe, the most appropriate — purchaser for a religious facility is another religious institution.”
He added that the congregation has a warm relationship with Onnuri Church’s membership and leadership.
“We know that they will be respectful of the building, the Jewish symbols that will remain even after our congregation has found a new home, and that they are sensitive to how difficult this is emotionally for many of our members. And, just as when they were our tenants, they conformed to our kashrut requirements and we never had a conflict about the use of space for religious services — for instance, when the second day of Rosh Hashanah fell on a Sunday — we are not concerned that that will change when the positions are reversed.”
The sale agreement includes a clause that enshrines Shabbat and holiday use and kashrut standards.
As to the halachic permissibility of selling the property, Rabbi Stern relied on a ruling of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which says: “A synagogue may sell its building, but maintain usage of the facility. A lease-back arrangement should be built into the terms of sale, so that while title will transfer, usage of the facility and maintaining the sacred symbols are retained until a specific date. At that future date, the sacred symbols and other ritual and holy items are to be removed, and the space will no longer function as a synagogue.”
“It’s time to have a fresh approach and make something valuable to the congregation and the community.”
Rabbi Emeritus Irving Spielman led the JCC of Fort Lee in the 1980s and 1990s. By the end of his tenure, the town’s demographics were changing and shul membership had begun to drop. Rabbi Spielman said that because he had not been involved in the negotiations he could not comment directly on the sale of the building.
However, reflecting on the fact that at one time during his tenure the JCC of Fort Lee was the largest Conservative synagogue in Bergen County, with a membership of 700 units, he said, “It is sad to note that they must now seek other facilities. It is my sincere hope that those involved with the sale of the building will use the proceeds to provide facilities that will meet the needs of the existing membership.”