Merger marks ‘marriage of two communities’

Merger marks ‘marriage of two communities’

Memorial plaques were removed from the walls of Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn. They, along with the synagogue’s Torahs, siddurim, and stained glass windows, were moved to Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge earlier this week.

Movers arrived at Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn on Monday to pack up the synagogue’s 54-year history. On Sunday, the congregations of Avoda and Temple Sholom in River Edge overwhelmingly voted to merge the two Reform congregations into Temple Avodat Shalom.

Many saw Sunday’s vote as a mere formality to conclude the merger, which had been under discussion for almost a year. Temple Sholom’s Hebrew school absorbed about 14 students from Avoda’s school in September, and a newsletter bearing the synagogue’s new name was ready to go out to members last week. The merger adds approximately 85 families from Avoda to Sholom’s 450 families in the River Edge synagogue, which will house Avodat Shalom.

“This is a marriage of two communities into one,” said Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Temple Sholom’s rabbi, who will serve as religious leader of Avodat Shalom.

Social programs aimed at integrating the Avoda members have been planned since September. On Feb. 6, Shabbat Shira, the synagogue will hold a “Service of Unification” that will include a Torah processional and leaders from both synagogues.

“I’m very sad that, in essence, they’ve had to sit shiva for their shul,” said Len Lawton, Temple Sholom’s president. “We want them to become active members of Temple Avodat Shalom as soon as they make that emotional transition.”

About 85 people gathered at Temple Avoda Friday night for the final Shabbat evening service. Members shared stories of the synagogue at an oneg afterward, which Rabbi Jonathan Woll described as “a good catharsis.”

At its height in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Avoda had at least 200 families. That number had dwindled to 113 when negotiations started with Temple Sholom in March.

Discussions of a merger began almost three years ago, when Avoda’s board realized that changing demographics in Fair Lawn made a Reform synagogue difficult to sustain. Talks were called off early as Avoda’s membership decided to make a final attempt to survive, but last year the board found itself again looking at the merger option.

“It’s hard these days for a small congregation to sustain itself financially,” said Baruch Gadot, Avoda’s now former president. “We came to a realization that in order to survive, it would be better to merge with another congregation.”

Temple Sholom was not looking for a merger, Lawton said, but reached out when members heard of Avoda’s troubles.

“Many of our congregants have personal relationships with the congregants of Avoda,” he said, noting that Temple Sholom had 45 families from Fair Lawn before the merger. “Our congregants realized that it’s an unfortunate situation where a temple’s closing [and] we have a moral obligation to open our temple.”

The new merged congregation could only accommodate one full-time rabbi, Gadot said. Temple Sholom’s Cantor Ronit Josephson will stay on at Avodat Shalom with Borovitz. Woll and Cantor Orna Green both received “very generous” severance packages that went beyond Union of Reform Judaism guidelines, Gadot said. He would not comment further on the issue except to wish Woll his best.

“I don’t know that it’s actually hit me yet,” Woll said. “It’s like a person preparing to be a mourner. My mourning will start pretty soon.”

Woll, who had been with Avoda for just under 20 years, is working to create a Reform chavurah in Fair Lawn. The group plans to have its first meeting on March 1 to decide its direction.

Rabbi Neal Borovitz places a Torah from Temple Avoda in the ark of Temple Avodat Shalom, formerly Temple Sholom.

The chavurah will have worship, educational, and social components, Woll said. His plan for now is to start with a monthly service and then get together for a handful of social events throughout the month. Eventually, he’d like to see the program expand to trips to Israel and Jewish sites around the tri-state area.

“Our goal has to be refined,” Woll said. “We are going to go out into the secular Jewish community and try to do the work that’s sometimes difficult for synagogues to do.”

The rabbi agreed with others that the small synagogues that have dotted the area for decades will have to become regional synagogues in order to survive.

“The Jewish community, synagogue-wise, is contracting,” he said. “What we’re trying to do [with the chavurah] is pick up a niche that might not go to any synagogue.”

As congregants moved out of Avoda Monday, the Anshei Lubavitch Outreach Center across the street stood ready to move in. Chabad had been renting two classrooms in the synagogue since September and has agreed to purchase the building for $1.7 million. The closing is expected to take place next week. Proceeds from the sale of the building will go toward Temple Avodat Shalom’s building fund.

“People were quite happy that it goes to another Jewish organization and it will be a continuation of what we did for 54 years,” Gadot said. “We felt – and Chabad felt the same way – that they will be taking over from us.”

In its current building, Anshei Lubavitch has 1,800 square feet and a preschool with more than 90 children. The Avodah building offers a total of 11,000 square feet, which Chabad plans to use as a second campus. It will renovate Avoda’s 10 classrooms into five large rooms for its preschool. Other plans include adding seven bathrooms and expanding the playground. Renovations have been set into three stages, said Rabbi Levi Neubort, Anshei Lubavitch’s director. The classrooms and bathrooms are the focus of the first stage, which Neubort said has to be completed by July 1, when Chabad’s summer camp programs begin. The second stage will update the HVAC system and roof. The final stage will tackle the building’s façade and parking lot. Estimates put the total renovation at approximately $1 million, Neubort said.

To date, the single largest donation for the renovations has been $54,000, he said. The organization has received enough for the down payment and to begin the first stage of construction. Neubort is confident Chabad will raise the needed funds.

“Phase one is critical,” he said. “We need the building ready for occupancy by July 1. My experience has shown [that] when you have certain concrete deadlines, a Jew finds the answer.”

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