‘Hall of fame’ custodian honored by Ridgewood congregation
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‘Hall of fame’ custodian honored by Ridgewood congregation

By all accounts, Jos? Serna is a good custodian — in fact, an excellent custodian. But he’s so much more, say the members of Temple Israel/Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood, where Serna has worked for the past ‘0 years.

On Saturday, the synagogue dedicated its kiddush room in Serna’s honor as part of a farewell ceremony for Rabbi Gil Steinlauf. and Cantor Michelle Freedman, who are leaving the congregation this summer. Steinlauf will become senior rabbi at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., the largest Conservative congregation in the city, with some 1,700 member families.


Temple Israel custodian Jos? Serna spins the dreidel at a shul Chanukah party.

Rabbi Noam Marans, former rabbi of the congregation, worked with the custodian for some 10 years. "Jos? became part of the mischpacha," he said. "It was more than a job for him." Not only was he reliable — even anticipating the needs of the synagogue — but "the knowledge base he acquired was amazing," he said, joking that Serna could tell you where the congregation was up to during Shabbat services.

Recalling times when the custodian went above and beyond in performing his duties, Marans cited verses from last week’s Torah reading, Beha’alotcha, where Moses begs Yitro to stay with the Israelites. Yitro declines, saying he must return home. But Moses persists, telling him, "You will be our eyes."

So too, said Marans, "is Jos? the eyes and ears of Temple Israel. He’s one of a kind. He should be in the synagogue custodian hall of fame."

"A synagogue can last a long time without a rabbi," quipped Marans, "but not without a custodian." He added that it may very well be unique for a synagogue to dedicate a shul facility in honor of its custodian.

Temple Israel president Chris Dobkins — who also served as president in 1989, when Serna was hired — called the custodian "an incredible person," who arrived at a time when the shul was having a "custodial crisis." The previous custodian had walked out erev Rosh HaShanah.

"The building was in need of TLC," she said. "Jos? spoke very little English but fortunately I spoke Spanish. He was very modest and shy and I could tell from the first day that he had a good heart."

According to Dobkins, "he’s poured his heart and soul into the building. He takes pride in it like it was his own home."

When the synagogue building flooded during Hurricane Floyd, she said, not only did Serna work night and day to pump out the water, but "he slept at the synagogue to protect the Torahs."

"Nobody asked me to," Serna told The Jewish Standard. "I wanted to do it. There was no electricity, no alarms."

In addition, said Dobkins, he visits the homes of elderly congregants who can’t do certain chores for themselves, and does the jobs for them.

Dobkins said Serna, whom she described as having great respect for religion, has "picked up a lot of Hebrew" during his years at the synagogue.

"The kids here adore him," she said. "He’s like our goodwill ambassador, always smiling, and if your kids are grown, he asks how they are. He even takes part in synagogue events."

Dobkins said the congregation is "thrilled that someone had the idea" to honor the custodian, whose name now appears on a plaque outside the kiddush room. The dedication was made possible by an anonymous donation from a congregant.

Asked what has motivated him to work so hard for his synagogue, Serna told the Standard that he tries to help as much as he can because he has become close to the members of the congregation.

"People return warmth with warmth," said Marans, a sentiment Serna clearly echoed.

"It comes from my heart," he said.

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