A journey that began with the sad dissolution of a half-century old synagogue has ended more than 5,000 miles away on a much happier note as the assets of that shul have been donated to create educational opportunities for Israeli children.
The Katzenelson School and an after-school program, both in Nahariya, received $’4,000 and $’3,000 respectively in a donation from the Elmwood Park Jewish Center, a traditional Conservative congregation that merged last year with Temple Beth Shalom in Fair Lawn.
"This donation enables us to put an advanced science lab in our school, a lab we do not have today" wrote Nurit Wolf, principal of the Katzenelson School, which serves children in first through sixth grade, in an e-mail translated by Ofer Lichtig, the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey community representative in Israel.
"The lab, which will have advanced computers, chemistry, and physics equipment, will enable our students to deepen and enrich their science studies," she wrote.
The school serves 300 students, many from underprivileged families. Their parents cannot pay for extras and the Elmwood Park donation will allow the children to study science in a modern, well-equipped lab, Wolf wrote.
"Indeed, the fact that the synagogue has made the donation from its assets being sold is very sad to us, but we believe the donation serves a highly important cause: enabling the underprivileged children of our school an equal opportunity to study science just like their peers in the more privileged areas," she wrote. "One of the most important values of being part of the Jewish people, which we all share, is ‘klal Israel and kol Israel arevin ze ba’ze.’ We are all responsible for each other. The Elmwood Park Jewish Center donation is a living proof of that and a great mitzvah which we greatly and deeply appreciate."
The rest of the money donated by the Elmwood Park Jewish Center will go to a youth club in the Katzenelson school neighborhood. These funds will renovate an existing building and buy computer equipment and games.
"I think it’s going to bring it to life," said Machla Shaffer, the Partnership ‘000 coordinator for UJA-NNJ. "Most of the parents work and, literally, the kids are on the street if they don’t have something like this to go to."
The seeds for the Elmwood Park donation were planted last year when UJA-NNJ was planning its Jersey to Jerusalem mission, which brought 350 residents of northern New Jersey to Israel last February. Muriel Weinreb, then president of the Elmwood Park Jewish Center, which was in the process of closing, decided, together with five others from her congregation to attend the 10-day trip along with members of Temple Beth Sholom, the Fair Lawn congregation they would soon be joining. Elmwood Park members wanted to donate one of their Torah scrolls to a place in Israel that could use it. Through Robert Miller of UJA-NNJ, who was then director of Jersey to Jerusalem, they were able to give one to the naval training base in Haifa. They took the scroll to the base, danced in the street and under the chuppah, and then took it in the sanctuary, according to Weinreb.
"It was very emotional," said Weinreb, who had been a member of Elmwood Park since 1963, twice serving as president. "They were very grateful."
The group was also able to visit Nahariya, the UJA-NNJ sister city in Israel. There they stayed with families and felt a real connection to the people of the city. That connection led the Elmwood Park congregants to want to do something else along the lines of giving away the Torah scroll. They came up with the idea that part of the proceeds from the sale of the synagogue go to someplace in Israel. Because of the connection they felt with the people of Nahariya, they chose the two programs, which they felt would address real needs of the community.
"At least the money went somewhere to do some good in Israel and that’s what we all want, to see Israel built up," said Weinreb.
UJA-NNJ’s Shaffer, sees the donation as a success of the Partnership ‘000 program that she coordinates. That program links Jewish communities in the diaspora directly with Israeli communities in the hopes of fostering greater communication and understanding.
"All of this fund-raising is a wonderful positive expression to the relationship," she said of the donation. "Because first and foremost the connection with Nahariya is about building relationships, not fund-raising. It’s about getting to know the American Jewish community for Israelis and for the American Jewish community to get to know the Israelis."