|From left, Temple Israel’s president, Josh Holden; Ridgewood’s mayor, Paul Aronsohn; Jose Serna, and Rabbi David J. Fine stand together at the dinner. ROBERT KERN PHOTOGRAPHY|
There’s a story that Rabbi Noam Marans tells.
Rabbi Marans now is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, but for 16 years he headed Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. One day, he said recently, a small group of congregants took a break from the services; they stood talking in the lobby. Just then, another congregant came rushing through the front door, late for services.
That congregant asked, “What are they up to in the service?”
Before anyone else could answer, a voice with a Spanish-sounding accent simply answered “Aleinu.”
It was the voice of Jose Serna, Temple Israel’s head custodian. And it’s not a surprise that he knows it. After all, he’s heard it chanted for 25 years. He knew that the Aleinu means that the service is near its end, and the tables and chairs have to be set up for whatever comes next, kiddush, speaker, or luncheon.
Chances are good that if someone were to ask for a Mr. Serna at the shul, not many people would be able to answer. But ask for Jose – just about everyone there knows him.
Mr. Serna is the Conservative congregation’s longest tenured staff member. Since 1989, he has set up for countless numbers of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, annual dinners, honored guest speakers, High Holiday services, seders, Purim fests, and just about everything else that happens at the synagogue.
But at last Saturday’s Ways and Means Dinner, more 200 people came to the shul. This time, they were there to honor Mr. Serna. He had 11 family members on hand, and at least five flew in from his native Colombia just to be with him at the dinner. Shul officials said more people bought ads in the dinner journal in Jose’s honor than they had for any other journal in recent memory.
It is not a surprise to hear a bat mitzvah girl or a bar mitzvah boy take the opportunity offered by his or her speech to thank Jose from the bimah for his help and support.
Rabbi Marans said that there are so many Jose stories because Mr. Serna has “touched so many lives.”
He worked with Mr. Serna for about 12 years, and said he felt that his “finest moment” came in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd hit New Jersey on the Friday before Yom Kippur, which began on Sunday evening that year. The building’s lower level had flooded and the power was out. There was a bat mitzvah scheduled for Shabbat.
When Rabbi Marans reached the synagogue, Mr. Serna already was there, lifting what he could out of the flooded areas. Next, he helped the synagogue find a temporary home at the nearby Benjamin Franklin Middle School.
“I do not need to tell you what it means to move a 1,000-plus congregation with a myriad of children’s programs, a bimah, Torahs, and machzorim,” holiday prayer books, Rabbi Marans said.
Then, he added, everything had to be moved out of the middle school on Monday night, right after Yom Kippur ended. The school had to be ready to open for its students on Tuesday.
Mr. Serna made it happen, he said.
“What impressed me the most about Jose is the mutual embrace he and the congregation have,” Rabbi Marans added. “The relationship defies traditional differences we often see between us, and embraced the similarity of our humanity.”
He added that he and Mr. Serna “grew up together in the synagogue as professionals. For every day-to-day challenge a synagogue faced, “Jose had a solution,” Rabbi Marans said.
Mr. Serna, who is 49 and lives in Englewood, said that he is not comfortable being the center of attention. He considered himself “half Jewish, half Catholic,” he said. “Everybody here is like my family.
“The rabbi, everybody treats me like an important person, part of the family. They welcome me.”
Mr. Serna also is proficient in Hebrew prayers such as the blessings over wine and bread. He said that the Ten Commandments familiar to Jews are the same ones he observes as a Catholic.
“We have the Ten Commandments,” he said. “Psalm 23 is the same between Judaism and Catholicism. Both religions teach us the right way of being nice.”
What moves Mr. Serna the most, he said, was watching people he knew as children grow into adult members and leaders of Temple Israel. And the appreciation always has been returned In 2004, an anonymous donor named a kiddish room in his honor.
Temple Israel’s president, Joshua Holden, can’t say enough about Mr. Serna.
“He is as much a part of our community as any one else,” Mr. Holden said. “When the kids are giving their bar mitzvah thank yous in their speeches they always thank Jose. The reason is, Jose is part of their growing up in the shul.
“We want the children to be family members – and Jose is part of the family.”
Mr. Holden remembers yet another storm flooding the synagogue.
“Jose came in and hooked up generators and manned pumps and got the basement pumped out and cleaned out,” he said. “Then he came back and he repaired any damage. When some kind of crisis hits us, he is always the one who knows what to do, and how to get things done. Without him, who knows how we’d be?”
Mr. Holden added that there are some synagogue members who have known Mr. Serna all their lives. Their synagogue experience would be incomplete without him.
“Jose is always looking out for our building and also for every one of our members,” Mr. Holden said. “He steps right up and does what needs to be done.”
Rabbi David Fine, Temple Israel’s spiritual leader for the last five years, said that he learned about Mr. Serna right away.
“When I was moving into the office, the complicated mechanics of moving were made less complicated because of Jose,” he said.
“He’s one of those people who defines the word mensch,” Rabbi Fine continued. “He is always smiling, and he’s loved by everyone for his gentleness and his humbleness. He is a person who contributes to our sense of being a holy congregation. And he comes from a different background.
“He is a senior member of our staff, and he deserves the outpouring of love he is getting.”
Brian Della Torre, who chaired the evening, said that when he and Rabbi Fine approached Mr. Serna about the honor, “he wasn’t sure what to make of it.”
“But he was the obvious choice,” Mr. Della Torre said. “He is so loved by everyone. He is the person who makes everyone’s important day easier.”
Mr. Della Torre said the event attracted past rabbinic staff as well as rabbis from other congregations. Ridgewood Mayor Paul Aronsohn attended, as did the town’s superintendent of schools, Dr. David Fishbein.
“It’s all so emotional for me, my heart is full,” Mr. Serna said. “I can’t find the words to describe everything I’m feeling.
“I’m overwhelmed and emotional and grateful.”
“Todah rabah,” he said, as his Jewish Standard interview ended. Thank you.
On Saturday night, the attendees started dancing a celebratory hora around Mr. Serna.
They lifted up him in a chair.
Someone else set it up this time.