Merging congregations take on a new building and a new name

Merging congregations take on a new building and a new name

Beth El and Beth Or commit to ‘reimagining’ the Jewish community

From left, Beth El’s Cantor Elizabeth Goldmann and Rabbi David Widzer and Beth Or’s Rabbi Noah Fabricant and Cantor Sarah Silverberg.
From left, Beth El’s Cantor Elizabeth Goldmann and Rabbi David Widzer and Beth Or’s Rabbi Noah Fabricant and Cantor Sarah Silverberg.

Last year, Temple Beth Or’s synagogue board endorsed a move to sell its building and merge with Temple Beth El of the Northern Valley, Beth Or’s president, Lee Ann Luing, reminded the congregation in her yom tov speech to the Washington Township congregation this year.

“We recognize that the model of temples and the needs of Reform Jews living in our area is changing,” Ms. Luing said. “With the growth of interfaith partners and infusion of technology in our lives, we must take a new look at how Jews are living and practicing Judaism today.”

Now, one year later, Ms. Luing announced that integration of the two communities is going well, “and we have begun to develop real relationships with our Beth El partners beyond the meeting room as we’ve shared worship, education, and social events.”

Meanwhile, in Closter, Temple Beth El’s co-presidents, Joel Rubin and Angela Schuster, were delivering the same message to their congregants. “We’re barreling ahead,” Mr. Rubin said, noting that the target starting date of September 2019 for the opening of the new congregation is still realistic. Beth El, like Beth Or, already has sold its building, and the two formerly separate communities will come together in a new home in Oradell.

“Together with our TBE partners, we searched all potential real estate options, agreed on and executed the purchase of our new home at 660 Kinderkamack Road — just 2.8 miles away — in Oradell,” Ms. Luing told her congregation. (The new building is about 4 miles from Beth El.) “For the first time in our history, we have a building that is mortgage- free as a major step toward financial stability,” she said.

In addition to finalizing its new location, the two congregations announced their new name — Kol Dorot: A Reform Jewish Community.

“We put together a survey that went out to both congregations, asking what they want from a name,” Mr. Rubin said. “Should it be Hebrew? English? Both? Should it reflect our location? — all the different components that might go into it.

“We got about 325 responses,” he continued. “The name was revealed Monday morning at both congregations. It was very well received in both places. Even people we thought might have a problem said they loved the name, and that it’s exactly what we should have.”

Noah Fabricant, Temple Beth Or’s rabbi, said “what we have done in the past year is astonishing to me.” In addition to finding a building and choosing a name, the two congregations have been working toward “social integration.”

From left, Beth El’s co-presidents, Angela Schuster and Joel Rubin, and Beth Or’s president, Lee Anne Luing.

A joint slichot service hosted by his synagogue was followed by a service held at Beth El on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. “It was wonderful,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “We’ll be doing more and more of that. Some people are already starting to recognize each other. We can’t just open a new synagogue building and expect everyone to feel like one community.

“The story of this year is really going to be to expand this experience beyond the circles of leadership. We’ve had a lot of leadership and committees working extremely hard together. Now we need to widen the circles so the rest of both communities feel engaged.”

Rabbi Fabricant said that the new name, which may be translated as Voice of Generations, “is really an important symbolic step in bringing the communities together. We have a similar task. To honor the 60 years of Temple Beth Or” — and the 68 years of Beth El — “and, when the time comes, to say an appropriate goodbye to this building. But while we’re honoring the past, we’re building and preparing and getting ready for the future.”

In his Rosh Hashanah sermon, Rabbi Fabricant said that “the idea of dorot stands at a pivot point.” When the congregation was asked what they hoped a new name would embrace, “the top responses were words like family, community, tradition, welcoming, but also modern and open. We needed something about grounding us in our history, our tradition, but very importantly signaling that we are creating something new.

“The name is modern,” he said. “Not using ‘temple,’ ‘synagogue,’ or ‘congregation’ is deliberate. Rather, we call it ‘A Reform Jewish Community.’ As connected as we are to the word ‘temple,’ it’s ultimately a building, and we weren’t trying to name a building.”

“The path we are on is wonderful,” said David Widzer, Beth El’s rabbi. “Not only for our congregation but for the broader community that we’re forming, the broader Reform Jewish community. We’re expecting to be an open, inclusive, warm, and welcoming center for Reform Jewish life.

“Congregations are changing. The Jewish world is changing. Rather than taking two congregations and merging and doing the same things, we have a commitment from our two communities to reimagine what it means to be a Jewish community in the 21st century.”

“Everything is a possibility,” Rabbi Widzer continued. “We envision a process over the next year of further integration and having the opportunity to imagine, what does a religious education program look like? How can we reach people in meaningful ways? What about social justice, expressing a sense of Jewish identity, and learning for adults?”

He said that the service held on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — involving clergy from both congregations — manifested “the palpable energy of new beginnings, connection with our past, and anticipation of our future — good themes for Rosh Hashanah.” The new name, he said, reflects the desire to be “the voice of the Jewish community for now and the positioning of ourselves to be the Jewish community of the future — not just to continue to survive, but to thrive.”

Neither rabbi could speak to the position of clergy in the new synagogue. “It’s not yet established,” Mr. Rubin said. “We’ve opened conversations, in the same way we approached the naming. We’re looking at every possibility,” whether that involves co-equal rabbis, one senior rabbi, or any other arrangement. Both rabbis, he said, are equally well respected in their congregations. “We don’t have a deadline, but we hope to have a solid direction by mid-year.”

Mr. Rubin said it is expected that plans for the new building — now an office building — will be submitted to the town of Oradell this month. Various committees have researched and hired architects and engineers, and both land use and traffic surveys have been conducted.

“It’s on pace, as we anticipated,” Mr. Rubin said, although once the package — including plans, renderings, and architectural drawings — has been submitted to the town, “it’s a little bit out of our hands.”

Both congregations did the “big reveal” on Monday, he said, displaying poster boards of the proposed new structure. But “It’s not finalized,” Mr. Rubin cautioned, adding that “hearing and seeing are two different things.”

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