There’s something irrepressibly American about moving forward with optimism and joy, and there is something essentially Jewish about keeping the link with the past and melding it into the future.
So when American Jews see that the postwar suburban structures and assumptions they’ve been holding on to no longer work as well as they used to, they don’t keep hanging on to them, and they don’t give them up. They transform them into something new, and they remember and honor and carry them forward.
Or, as Rabbi David Widzer of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter put it, “The Jewish community today is not what the Jewish community once was. If synagogues want to continue to be the central address for the Jewish community, we can’t keep doing what we have been doing since World War II.
“The suburban synagogue model was absolutely right for its time and place, but the Jewish community todays looks, acts, feels, and connects differently than it used to, and it is important for the community to respond to that.
“There is very little else in our world that we keep doing now exactly as we did in the 1950s. Congregations can’t do that. They can’t be stuck in that mold.”
Last Shabbat, two Reform congregations — Rabbi Widzer’s Temple Beth El and Temple Beth Or of Washington Township — came together to form the brand-new Kol Dorot: A Reform Jewish Community. Even its new name — the Voice of Generations, in English — looks both forward and back, linking past, present, and future.
“A number of years ago, the president of Beth El at the time, Jeff Silver, and I had been talking about it for a while, and he came to me and said that a switch had flipped in his head.” The two had been talking about the changing demographics that combined with changing assumptions and had hit the synagogue hard.
“Jeff had gone, he told me, from ‘Oh woe is us, how will we survive’ to the realization that 65 years ago, our founding families had created Jewish life in northern Bergen County. And we are the new founders now.
“We will find ways to make Judaism meaningful, relevant, and inspiring to this generation, in this time, in this place, and we also can be founders today. So it isn’t about how we survive, but it’s how we will engage with the Jewish community today, to continue to make a meaningful home for our community.”
That shared vision of Reform Judaism in northern Bergen County is what brought the two synagogues together.
Last weekend, the coming together was entirely literal. After Friday evenings at both the Closter and Washington Township synagogues where memories were aired and honored, and after separate Shabbat morning services, members of Beth El gathered up two of their sifrei Torah, symbolically transferred the light in their ner tamid — their eternal light, that hangs over the ark in every shul — and walked the seven miles to Beth Or.
Except that by the time they got there, the building no longer belonged to Beth Or but had been transformed, through newly erected signs, into the temporary home of Kol Dorot.
Work on the merger began about two years ago, and very little about it was left to chance. Experts worked with synagogue leaders on how to combine membership and finances, and how to help congregants deal with their possible fears and resentments and feelings of loss, as well as creating the feeling of excitement and new possibilities. Many meetings and shared activities allowed members of the two communities to get to know each other in a variety of contexts. The preparation was deliberate and intense.
And then it was time to move.
“From the Beth El side, we’ve had a series of events, of services, of opportunities to celebrate the legacy of our congregation,” Rabbi Widzer said. “A number of weeks ago, we had a special Friday night service dedicated to celebrating the legacy of music at Beth El. Music always has played a fundamental role in the community — we have a synagogue band and a youth choir, and we have world-class musicians join us two, three, sometimes four times a year for worship.
“And yes,” he added, “we will bring that to Kol Dorot. Beth Or also has a vibrant musical history, and we are excited about being able to continue it. Music has a special role in crafting and shaping religious experiences.”
Back to the special Friday night services, “We had one about our legacy of learning, both for adults and in our religious school. Our students put up a living museum after services, like a science fair; each identified the favorite thing they had learned.
“And then this past Friday night was dedicated to the celebration of community. It included the participation of our rabbi emeritus, Fredric Pomerantz, and our cantor emeritus, Cantor Shlomo Bar-Nissim. Both of them were present with us.
“During the service, we did a roll call of membership, celebrating the members dating all the way back to 1951, when we were founded. We had a few of our founding families still in attendance; we had them rise, and then we went decade by decade until everybody was standing in celebration of our generations. We had greetings, by video or read from the bimah, by 11 past clergy and staff, people who had served as rabbis or cantors or executive directors or education directors.
“We took time during the service to have everyone turn to the people next to them to share memories. The sanctuary is a large room, and it felt filled with the memories, the stories, the history. We had a seven-minute montage of photos throughout the years.
“And then the final song. We had our religious school students, our kids, lead us in a musical setting by Dan Nichols called ‘Be Strong — Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik.’
“We took that as the theme for the entire evening. It’s what you say when you finish one book and turn to the next book in Torah. We are strong. We are strong. Let us strengthen each other. We are starting a new chapter.”
Inevitably, there was a bittersweet feeling to the evening. “There was the opportunity to feel a lot of the sadness, the loss, the regret at what was being concluded, but we were able to recognize that we are not leaving those memories behind. We are bringing them with us.”
Similarly, Beth Or’s rabbi, Noah Fabricant, led Friday night services that looked both behind, at the 60 years since the synagogue was founded, and forward. “Services were in honor of our longest-time members,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “We heard reflections and memories from a dozen of them, and we heard from our rabbi emeritus, Phil Berkowitz. He’s retired now, and he lives in Maine, but he was live via satellite.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that we can’t move forward without properly honoring our past.”
The next morning, at Beth El, “we had a lovely service in the sanctuary, and the final aliyah was for our past presidents,” Rabbi Widzer said. “We had thirteen past presidents, representing the generations of our community. I was surprised by how emotional it was.”
Meanwhile, in Beth Or, “we had a bat mitzvah,” Rabbi Fabricant said. It was more or less a regular Shabbat morning in the building.
Back at Beth El, “at the conclusion of the service, the past presidents lined the center aisle of the sanctuary, our current co-presidents came up on the bimah, and the two Torah scrolls that we were going to march with were handed to them.
“We extinguished our ner tamid and transferred the light symbolically into an electric lantern” — a big flashlight — “and we began singing, and marched out of the building.
“We were joined by many members of our community, and we began our seven-mile procession to our new home.”
The walk was carefully planned and organized, Rabbi Widzer said. “We are tremendously grateful to the Bergen County Sheriff’s Department They had two cars with us the whole way, accompanying us, stopping traffic. They were fantastic.
“We rented a pickup truck.” It carried musicians, so “we were able to have live music, Jewish music, klezmer music, on the entire route. It was fabulous.”
It also was a stunningly beautiful day, something the organizers could not have arranged but for which they were grateful.
The walk was organized so that different synagogue groups were responsible for different parts of it, and the ner tamid and Torah scrolls were handed off. Overall, about 100 people carried a Torah; some for longer distances than others. “And I also had a backpack of plush Torah scrolls,” toys that children or people who didn’t feel comfortable carrying an actual Torah could heft, Rabbi Widzer said.
The last carriers were the last child to become bar mitzvah and the last to be confirmed at Beth El.
The walk took about three hours.
“And when we arrived, we were met by a wild crowd, with such a rush of excitement and such great joy!” Rabbi Widzer said.
“We met them with people holding streamers, and our baal tekiah” — the shofar blower — “blew the shofar as the Torahs entered the parking lot. And we had set up an ice cream truck, a waffle truck, and a there was a live band,” Rabbi Fabricant said; bodies need sustenance, just as souls do.
“And there were two people carrying two of Beth Or’s scrolls, and so we had four. We entered the synagogue together.”
By that time, the building the group entered no longer was Beth Or. The signs had been changed, so it had become Kol Dorot.
“When we entered the sanctuary together, as one community, as Kol Dorot, we sang “Hinei Ma Tov” — how good it is when brothers and sisters sit together, Rabbi Widzer said. “Everyone pressed all the way to the front, and I climbed up a ladder and symbolically transferred the light of our ner tamid into the one there. And God’s presence, which had accompanied us as we walked, was with us as we installed the Torah scrolls in the ark. And then we joined in the Shema, and then in Shehecheyanu,” the blessing for something new. “It was such a wondrous feeling of joy, of community, of vibrancy, of the excitement of a new beginning.”
There was another celebration for Beth Or on Saturday evening, “even as we welcomed our future as Kol Dorot,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “We brought out all of our archives, thousands of photographs, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia from the time Beth Or was founded, when it rented space at the firehouse on Midland Avenue in Paramus. We brought our every temple bulletin, and all the ritual objects, all the silver — Torah crowns and breastplates and candlesticks and kiddush cups. We asked people to share stories; a lot of the people in the room knew a lot more about the objects than I did, so we passed around the microphone.
“And then we concluded with the Havdalah service, to transition not only from Shabbat to the week, but from Temple Beth Or to Kol Dorot.”
Not only from kodesh l’chol, that is, but also from kodesh l’kodesh. From holy to holy.
It’s not all feel-good abstractions. There are some specifics in the near future. Kol Dorot will remain in what was Beth Or’s building — “we’re calling it Kol Dorot West,” Rabbi Fabricant said — only until its new home is complete. That’s an office building in Oradell that’s being nearly gutted and then converted to a synagogue. The community hopes to move into its new building after the High Holy Days.
Beth El’s nursery school will reopen in the fall in the Closter building, and as soon as the new building is ready it will move there, as an early childhood center.
“The new building is a little smaller than either of the two other buildings were, and that’s by design,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “We are looking for a space that will be a little more efficient, that we can use in a less traditional way.” There won’t be a traditional classroom wing; instead of many classrooms the newly renovated building will offer more fluid spaces that can be reconfigured more easily. “I think the future of Jewish education is much less focused on classes of students, divided by grade, sitting with the teacher in the front of the classroom,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “Our new religious school is going to have a lot more flexibility, with small groups of students and different configurations of ages and experiences.”
At first the sanctuary will be an interior space, but the congregation hopes to raise money to build a new one, with windows. It will be “a purpose-built sanctuary,” Rabbi Fabricant said.
“We will bring over lots of things when we make our move to Oradell,” he continued. The exterior is all planned and the town’s approved it, but the inside still is being planned. “Thinking about the physical space is a complicated question. Part of it is bringing the objects that are significant to both communities. For example, Beth El had beautiful stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. Dozens of those panels will be installed in different parts of the new building in Oradell. And the leaves of the trees of life and the plaques celebrating simchas from both buildings will be moved and reinstalled, although most likely only one actual tree.”
Like the building, the community’s new name was chosen carefully, Rabbi Widzer said, and that has to do with the building. “The team working on selecting our name very consciously and deliberately made sure that we are not a temple or a congregation.” It’s just plain Kol Dorot: A Reform Jewish Community. “It’s not about a building. It’s not about physical space.
“It’s about community. It’s about relationships. We wanted to start from the beginning, and to emphasize that ideological point.
“Our future is tremendously bright,” he continued. “Kol Dorot has as its vision modeling a center of Jewish living and learning. It’s going to be a place to find meaning. To find connection. To find a spiritual home. To find opportunities to repair our world. To find ways of doing Jewish in the 21st century.
“Kol Dorot is looking forward to being a partner in the broader Jewish community, to continuing our engagement, as Beth El and Beth Or both did, to being part of the vibrant life of northern New Jersey, and to being a spiritual home and center of Jewish living and learning for everyone in the Jewish community.”