There are many religious groups and institutions that talk about balancing the old and the new, tradition and innovation, the ancient and the modern.
Without dismissing the validity of any of those group’s tensions, balancing acts, or struggles, it seems fair to say that few manage that balance — not only metaphorically but physically too — as well as Kehillat Kesher does.
Kesher just opened its new building on Sunday. The congregation, which began 15 years ago, first met in people’s houses, its president, Rebecca Tobin, said. It began with eight founding families, who moved to the East Hill — mostly from the Upper West Side — at about the same time. Once it outgrew family basements and living rooms, it bought a beautiful Victorian house, a stately blue building that ruled the corner on which it sat with its own history and sense of history and of place. Kesher met at the house for some time, but soon it was clear that the shul’s growth would demand more space. Instead of either moving to a new site or tearing the house down and using the land for something entirely new, Kesher decided to grow and build around it.
So the old blue house still stands, surrounded by the new shul building that curves and cradles it.
The new building is all windows, open to the street and the sun and the sky; sunlit during the day and letting in moonlight and street lights once it’s dark.
And then, of course, there is the fillip added by geographical happenstance. Kesher’s mailing address is Englewood, but as its full name — the Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood — makes clear, its property bridges those two towns.
“One of the very first Kesher meetings that I ever went to — the 2007 annual meeting — was to discuss future building plans,” Ms. Tobin said. “It was obvious that we would grow.” The shul, she said, is “a warm and inclusive modern Orthodox community,” and its neighborhood, the East Hill, which includes Englewood and Tenafly, is home to a large number of Orthodox Jews. So, nine years ago the community began considering plans.
As hard as it is to deal with one municipality when you are expanding or renovating a building, it is that amount of trouble squared when you have to work with two of them. That took some time.
They also needed more space. “We ended up buying the house next door,” Ms. Tobin said. “That one we took down.” It was significantly less charming than Kesher’s Victorian. Before that, though, “we housed a family whose own house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina,” she said. After that, but before it was time to raze it, the community used the building for youth activities and kiddushes.
The fact that everyone in the community had a voice in planning its new building is an accurate representation of its structure. “The shul is run by the members,” Ms. Tobin said. “The idea was never to have passive memberships. Once you join us, you join a committee. You get involved.”
One way that the shul works toward that goal is the financial pledge card that was distributed at the opening on Sunday. “It’s not like a financial pledge card, where you pledge your multiple of chai, but it is a menu of different ways to get involved in shul — maybe coming to davening on time, or more often, or learning to read Torah, or signing up for our chesed program.”
Involving everyone “does get harder as we get bigger,” Ms. Tobin conceded. The community now has about 160 families, and it has kept growing. Making that work is another balancing act. “We don’t want 160 people on every committee, but we do want everyone to feel that they have a stake in what we do,” she said. “You don’t want people to think that someone else will clean up.”
Kesher is clear on where its communal heart is — and that it is in many places. “We try to focus on davening, and on having our sanctuary be a place of serious spiritual contemplation,” Ms. Tobin said. “We also focus on chesed — on engaging the world around us, both the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world, and Israel. We focus on being active citizens of the world.
“We also focus on Torah study. That’s largely where Rabbi Block” — the synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Akiva Block — “comes in, with the classes he teaches. We also have a robust scholar-in-residence program.”
Often the hardest part of renovations is paying for it, but “there was a lot of communal input, and we never had to assess a capital campaign,” Ms. Tobin said. “It was all voluntary contributions, and we did not go over our budget. That’s thanks to our building committee and our treasurer.
“There were times that we took things that we had planned but couldn’t afford out. Maybe now, or later, we can put them back in — but we are proud of the fact that we did not spend beyond our means.”
“Our shul has endured a very long and arduous and challenging time,” Rabbi Block said. “We were basically nomads for about two and a half years. Through it all, through the great dedication and commitment and investment of so many people, we were able not just to survive but to thrive and to continue to grow.
“I think that the broadening and deepening that occurred throughout these last few months is only going to grow exponentially. As we move into our new space, we are going to be able to do so many more things, and do them so much better.”
Among those things is a daily morning minyan. “Anyone who has wanted to daven with a minyan has had to go elsewhere,” Rabbi Block said. There is no scarcity of minyanim on the East Hill, but “people have wished for a place to daven with their own community. Now, there is an excitement, a buzz around the new building, so much so that people who haven’t necessarily been interested in coming to minyan every day have started to do it.” He also plans on expanding the shul’s adult education programming.
“The biggest thing of all is people’s enthusiasm,” he said. “People are so excited about making this place a hub, a thriving center of religious life in the community. Everyone is invested in it. It is a group effort, and that is what makes it so wonderful.
“So many people consider it their sacred responsibility to be involved and to cultivate and to grow this community,” he concluded.