Jewish Center of Teaneck embraces Orthodoxy
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Jewish Center of Teaneck embraces Orthodoxy

Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck might not have been surprised to get a letter earlier this month announcing that the venerable shul will “define” itself as Orthodox.

An identity crisis had been brewing for more than a year, as the shul sought to stem a fall-off of members in an increasingly Orthodox community.

According to the letter, dated Feb. 5 and signed by the Center’s president Eva Lynn Gans and Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, the board of trustees had participated in a series of retreats during the past five months in order to discuss the future of the center. On Jan. 10, the board decided to define the center as Orthodox, while also maintaining its traditional minyan.

“It’s a recognition of who we are,” said Wallace Greene, the Center’s executive director, on Tuesday. “[The board] felt it was very important to make this statement and perhaps look at options in moving in a different way.”

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Rabbi Lawrence Zierler

Zierler and Gans were in Israel this week and could not be reached for comment.

The redefinition will have no effect on the center’s operations, Greene continued, nor will the synagogue affiliate with any Orthodox organization, such as the Rabbinical Council of America or Yeshiva University. The move is merely a recognition of what the center has already become, he said.

In June 2007 a mechitza was added to daily services in the Feldman Chapel and Zierler began the Orthodox Hallel V’Zimrah Shabbat minyan in October 2007, which runs concurrent with the center’s traditional minyan. That minyan has mixed seating, but women do not read from the Torah. It also uses an Orthodox prayerbook. The only difference between the traditional minyan and Hallel V’Zimrah, according to Greene, is the mechitza.

The new definition might, he added, help attract new members.

“The reality is that the demographics of the community are decidedly Orthodox and the center recognizes that,” he said.

Not including Chabad, 11 of the 16 synagogues in Teaneck listed in The Jewish Standard’s Guide to Jewish Life identified as Orthodox. The Jewish Center identified itself as Orthodox and Traditional.

According to the letter, the center’s leadership intends to hold parlor meetings next month to explain how the board reached its decision and hear members’ questions and concerns.

“There are people who are very comfortable with the way things are and some individuals who would not like to see any change,” Greene said. “The center has to look at different directions to attract younger people.”

The change hasn’t elicited raves from all of the center’s members. Milton Bornstein, a lifetime trustee, led a campaign last year with a group calling itself “Concerned Members of the Jewish Center of Teaneck” to bring Zierler’s contract renewal to a general membership vote. The group protested what it called the sidelining of the synagogue’s traditional service, which they blamed on Zierler. In the end, the rabbi’s contract was renewed.

Now that the synagogue has defined itself as Orthodox, Bornstein said, “I believe it’s the dream of Rabbi Zierler but not necessarily the dream of the people of the synagogue. I believe a change like that should go to the membership [for a vote], which wasn’t done.”

The Jewish Center once boasted more than 1,200 member-families and a Hebrew school with more than 200 children. Bornstein, who joined the center in 1963, predicted that within a few years it would run out of money and people. Several people, he said, had already told him that the letter had prompted a decision not to return.

“It’s unfortunate the synagogue is going this route,” he said.

But Greene maintained that the center’s members “are now comfortable in stating who they are. The future will determine how much further they’re willing to move in that direction.”

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