Josh Lipowsky and Lois Goldrich
Bruce Prince has not done a scientific study of the number of singles in Fort Lee. "We don’t have demographic numbers, just bunches of people," said the director of synagogue growth and development at Cong. Gesher Shalom, the Fort Lee Jewish Community Center.
But taking note of the many apartment houses extending from Fort Lee down to Weehawken, he said, "I just know there are people there that we can bring in."
Seeking ways to incorporate these individuals into the life of the Jewish community, Prince has spoken with other Jewish communal leaders, including Judy Beck, director of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Synagogue Leadership Initiative, and Joy Kurland, director of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
Together, they have devised a variety of programs targeted to this population.
Three weeks ago, Gesher Shalom hosted a bagel brunch for Jewish Singles 50+, a singles group based at the JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Led by shul member Carole Miller, the event, dealing with stress, attracted some 65 people.
"It was both interactive and spirited," said Pauline Rotmail, the shul’s administrative assistant.
"Everyone experiences stress, so they were able to give each other helpful suggestions," added Prince, who noted that attendees lingered after the event ended and continued the discussion.
"In the old days, our synagogue had a very vibrant [singles] group," said Prince. But when some of the organizers moved away and got married, the initiative faded. Now people are asking for it once again.
According to Prince, the singles initiative in Fort Lee is not new. But new approaches have been added. And since singles cover a wide age span, the synagogue is beginning its campaign "with broad strokes."
Some programs, like the brunch, are being offered in conjunction with the JCC on the Palisades. Also being planned, together with UJA-NNJ, is a singles-oriented Friday night service.
"On a normal Shabbat, we get only a handful, 10 to 15 singles," said Prince. "But with Shabbat Yachad, scheduled for March 16, we hope to get over 100." The special service will "try to connect our singles with a spiritual and meaningful religious experience through song and community."
Said Prince, "Like so many Upper West Side and other communities, we are basing our service on the warming melodies of Shlomo Carlebach and Craig Taubman and offering a place to connect without the pressure that so many individuals experience in singles venues."
The service will be followed by an oneg, including refreshments, for different ages groups, with the help of greeters.
"We have heard that many singles coming to an event feel uncomfortable walking into a strange setting alone," said Prince. "Knowing no one, or not knowing the format, many folks experience angst, and our role here is help the process along in a natural and easy going setting."
The synagogue will also try instituting a "quick dating" program, where ‘0 or 30 people are matched and allowed a short time, perhaps seven or eight minutes, to speak with one another before moving on to someone else. The process is repeated until everyone in the room meets everyone else. At the end of the evening, all of the participants will fill out a questionnaire. If two people have listed each other, their contact information will be passed onto both.
Also planned is a caf? evening, featuring a folksinger, and a barbecue co-hosted with the JCC on the Palisades.
Prince pointed out that Fort Lee has experienced a major demographic shift over the past several years, and what was once a thriving Jewish and Italian community has become a more diverse mix of peoples.
"It is essential for a Jewish organization to reflect the needs of the community in order to remain relevant and essential," he said. "The apartments that line the Palisades have an interesting mix of people. Many retirees, empty-nesters, singles, and ex-New Yorkers have made their homes here, and the problems that all of the synagogues in this area have encountered is finding a way to connect to this group."
Serving these groups presents special challenges to area synagogues. Empty-nesters and singles do not need a Hebrew school, which has been a traditional attraction for membership in synagogues. And retirees are often from New York and other areas and are not tuned in to the local synagogues and community.
To meet their needs, Gesher Shalom is planning to offer a variety of programs, including "intellectual and spiritual offerings," field trips, and alternate programs like kosher cooking classes and yoga.
Noting that programs like these "are beginning to take hold and new faces are finding their way into our shul," Prince added that "while joining our community is a major incentive, offering a Jewish place that may create a second home is a large part of our intent."
The congregation is also offering offsite programming that essentially brings the shul to the community. Book discussions and lectures at Borders in Fort Lee have featured such local authors as Rabbi Michael Greenbaum, vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, discussing the direction of the Conservative movement, and Fort Lee psychotherapist Dr. Samuel Menahem, exploring the weaving of prayer and psychotherapy.
"And this is just the beginning," said Prince of the many singles programs offered by the congregation or still in the planning stages. "Our intention is to bring back the vibrancy to the [singles] community."