Since 1981, Rabbi Stephen Lerner, director of the Center for Conversion to Judaism in Teaneck, has also served as the religious leader of a small congregation.
Over the years, the group has moved from one home to another, from Ridgefield Park to Teaneck. Now, it has transformed itself once again, staking out a new identity.
“We’re calling ourselves a minyan,” said Lerner, explaining that members will move “from home to home.”
Known originally as the Ridgefield Park Hebrew Association – “the oldest Conservative congregation in the county,” said Lerner – the shul, later named Cong. Kanfei Shahar, wings of dawn, was officially known as Temple Emanuel of Ridgefield Park when Lerner took over as rabbi in 1981.
“It never got very big,” the rabbi explained, noting that the synagogue was headed by student rabbis through much of its life, becoming egalitarian in the 1970s under then part-time Rabbi Mark Kiel, who now heads Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson.
“They talked about closing, but I kept it going by bringing in people I knew,” said Lerner, adding that by the late 1980s the synagogue had grown from 50 to 100 members.
By the mid-1990s, however, as “the old-timers faded away” and Teaneck now offered the egalitarian option that had drawn people to Ridgefield Park, the synagogue was in decline, said Lerner, “and there was virtually no interested Jew living in Ridgefield Park.” As a result, the congregation sold its building to a Korean church and bought a house on Teaneck’s Copley Avenue.
“It took us two years to get a zoning permit,” recalled Lerner, citing the opposition of the shul’s neighbors, who claimed it would make the street “too crowded.”
Not permitted to hold services in the building, the congregation nevertheless persisted, holding services in different venues. In 2000, the Copley Avenue building was sold to private buyers,
“Sometime around 2002, we started to meet at Beth Am,” said Lerner, “holding Yamim Noraim services at the Glenpointe Marriott and occasional holiday services at people’s homes.”
Since Beth Am, a Reform congregation in Teaneck, does not hold Saturday morning services, Kanfei Shahar began to meet there on Shabbat morning.
“It’s been a very nice, amicable arrangement,” said Barry Dounn, former president of Beth Am and its current treasurer.
“It fit both our needs and they were wonderful tenants. We were happy to be able to provide another Jewish organization with a place to meet and pray.”
While losing the synagogue’s tenant will have some financial ramifications, said Dounn, “I would describe it as a loss rather than as a hardship.”
“We’re actively looking to find another congregation that wants the space,” said the shul’s president, Paul Seitelman.
Lerner said that while the arrangement with Beth Am worked well, he realized it could not be open-ended.
“I anticipated that by 2009, if we kept meeting at Beth Am, we would run out of money,” he said. Despite their initial reluctance to leave the Teaneck synagogue, members ultimately agreed.
Most members are in their 50s, said Lerner, though “we have one more bar mitzvah to go, in 2011.”
Starting this Shabbat, Lerner, who said he now draws “less than one-third of my already very part-time salary,” will be leading what he calls the Cong. Kanfei Shahar minyan, a davening group that will meet twice a month at members’ homes. High Holy Day services will continue to be held at the Glenpointe.
“We’ve always gotten a minyan,” said Lerner, who says he expects that to continue. “Some people feel you’ve got to have a building, but I think it will work; people will come.” The service includes a full Torah reading, with members taking turns leading services. Lerner leads a Torah discussion.
“We still have our three Torahs,” he said, but he noted sadly that a “storage nightmare” in 2000 resulted in the loss of everything but the shul’s Torahs and silver. “Our documents and our memorial plaques are all gone,” he said.
Lerner said he welcomes new members and will be catering the “cholent kiddush” himself this Shabbat. For additional information, call (201) 837-2024 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.