Synagogue counts its blessings on 50th anniversary
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Synagogue counts its blessings on 50th anniversary

Rebecca Bernstein McVeigh, left, Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, and Cantor Josh Finkel
Rebecca Bernstein McVeigh, left, Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, and Cantor Josh Finkel

Milestones — anniversaries, say — have a way of focusing people’s attention, shining a spotlight on major events, changes, and challenges. As Beth Haverim Shir Shalom prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, that spirit of reflection is very much alive in the community.

On May 23, the Mahwah synagogue will hold an outdoor event, with clergy and lay leaders celebrating its history, accomplishments, and plans for the future. The Reform synagogue, which includes people from both Rockland and Bergen counties among its 350 members, prides itself on fostering a sense of connection among congregants.

The shul’s website recounts its history: “In October 1970, a small group of families responded to a notice in a local newspaper to become part of a new Reform congregation in Bergen County. The name, Beth Haverim (house of friends), was chosen in 1976. The Reform Temple of Suffern-Shir Shalom was founded in 1971 with ten families, hailing from Rockland and Orange Counties in New York and Bergen County in New Jersey.”

With similar missions and a joint commitment to furthering members’ Jewish journeys, in 2007 the two congregations merged to become Mahwah’s Beth Haverim Shir Shalom. And, says the website, “We continue to grow as a house of friends.”

Beth Haverim’s executive director, Iris Greenberg, is particularly proud of the fact that the mission of the synagogue “has always stayed the same — serving the community, keeping Jewish values, and creating a caring community.” Since Day 1, she said, when she walked in, from a Conservative Jewish background “and not knowing what to expect, it became part of my own home, a second family.”

She spoke fondly of past clergy, Rabbi Joel Mosbacher and Cantor David Perper, “who are still near and dear to our hearts.” Then she continued, describing the current rabbi, Ilana Schwartzman, as “brilliant and wonderful.

“The key fact is that we are a warm and caring congregation,” Ms. Greenberg said. “You walk in the door and you get a hug. People are happy to see you.” The goal is to find out what a family is looking for — whether it is spirituality or educational programs — and work to meet those needs.

“It really was the mission of both congregations, which is why the transition had so few bumps,” she said.

Ms. Greenberg is proud not only of the merger but of the success of the synagogue’s kehillah campaigns. The first campaign enabled the synagogue to add an extension to its education wing, while the second allowed the addition of what it calls it gathering hall.

“In a climate where it’s difficult for synagogues to continue, the success of the campaigns demonstrated that the community wants us to grow and succeed,” she said. “It says a lot about our congregation, and our lay leadership.”

At the May 23 celebration, the synagogue will screen a video in which members, many of them longtime congregants, talk about their connection to the synagogue. The video, called Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, will announce the congregation’s second endowment campaign, the Beth Haverim Shir Shalom Foundation for Our Future.

Describing the makeup of the synagogue membership, “We have young families coming in and we still have the older generation,” Ms. Greenberg said. “Our programs are geared for both. We’re a thriving congregation, even through last year. It’s amazing how kind people can be. They really rallied and came together, including shopping and making deliveries.”

The board, she said, “made deliveries to each household, bringing Machzors” — High Holiday prayer books — “as well as goodies for Chanukah, Purim, and Passover. We made sure we connected with every household.” Like many other institutions, the synagogue learned that “technology can be your friend.” Even after the pandemic, it may stream one service online every month for people who have trouble getting to the synagogue in person. “We didn’t think of that before,” she said.

“We went remote immediately,” she continued. School never stopped, and services continued to be held. “We went outside when we could. We didn’t miss a beat. People were grateful for that.”

And what does she want moving forward? “Please let everyone be healthy,” she said. “I pray and hope we continue to grow. It’s not easy, but we keep working at it.”

The synagogue’s education director, Rebecca Bernstein McVeigh, has held that position for 18 years, and she’s been a member of the congregation for 25. “In the beginning, I was a volunteer,” she said, holding such roles as committee chair, trustee, and vice president. “I cannot separate myself from this community. And I cannot overstate the importance of volunteer lay leaders in the life of this congregation.”

Ms. McVeigh is particularly proud of the line in the synagogue’s mission statement affirming that “We are dedicated to the never-ending process of Jewish learning. It tells people who you are, helps people know what’s important.” Jewish learning, she said, can take many forms, from formal education to music, prayer, or even a field trip.

“What I have learned over the years is that just because something has always worked or just because it’s ‘how we always did it’ doesn’t mean something new can’t be great, too,” she said. “Conversely, not everything new is going to automatically be better. You need to not wait for new ideas to come to you, you need to actively pursue new educational ideas and then weigh whether or not they work for your community.” The mission statement, she pointed out, “doesn’t just go for our members; it goes for us as professionals too.”

Ms. McVeigh called the 2007 merger “a very big deal, with two beautiful congregations coming together and blending as one. We really became one big family.” Both are “singing congregations,” she said, and had similar education programs. Before the merger, “I met with the head of the Suffern congregation and we talked about their students.”

Ms. McVeigh is proud of how her congregation has weathered the pandemic. “I love that in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Hillel says that we must not separate ourselves from the community, and then covid asked us to do just that — but with amazing effort and imagination by staff and lay leaders and a significant assist from technology, we managed to keep people connected.”

Reflecting on changes in the congregation over the past 50 years, Ms. McVeigh said, “Two things I can think of that have changed the most are that our creativity level in programming, worship, and education have grown, and on the more practical side, the number of towns our membership represents has grown, as families find that they are (1) not really so far away, and (2) looking for quality and being more willing to travel five extra minutes to find it.”

The school now has 170 students, reaching kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. K1 and K2 are free. “We’re really trying to emphasize that the earlier they start, the happier they’ll be about Jewish education,” Ms. McVeigh said.

The biggest change in the synagogue’s school, she said, has been “an evolution in priorities, in terms of what we want to teach.” Since the synagogue’s inception, students have attended the school one day a week. When she first came, inheriting the school from a principal who had served it for 25 years, she was hesitant to make immediate changes. But as time went on, “I have felt confident in making changes in how we do things,” based on her assessment of families’ needs.

“What’s important to them? What do they need? If we’re just teaching what we want and ignoring their needs, we’re not going to get anything accomplished. It may feel good, but if we’re not serving our families, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

There’s more to do, though, she said; she hopes to engage more members in adult-level learning and “to further fine tune our children’s educational experience, so that families are more fully involved at whatever level works for them.

“Our unique Family School has been a part of that, but I want to fully integrate our religious school education with the b’nai mitzvah preparation process to make it seamless, in recognition that all of us here are partners in education, no matter what our official roles are,” she continued. “I love this place and what it has meant to me personally and professionally. I’m proud of what it was and what it is. And I can’t wait to see what it will be.”

Cantor Josh Finkel has been with the congregation almost one year. “One of the reasons I wanted to come here was because while every congregation says it is welcoming and warm, when I met this congregation, I really fell in love with them and how they cared for each other,” he said. A fan of many kinds of music, Cantor Finkel also writes original worship music and was named one of the Forward’s “21 Voices that Move Us” in 2015.

He is a fan of “thinking outside the box and finding ways to connect,” Cantor Finkel said. “I inherited a choir that was really good, and I worked hard to find ways to get them to sing virtually. We just got back in person a week ago. and they sound wonderful together.”

“Things are slowly defrosting from the limitations of social distancing,” he said, describing a choir with “a robust mix of age groups and a good mix of men and women. Once we get the kids coming back, I look forward to developing a youth choir.” His daughter, Sophia, 9, is particularly eager for that to start, he said. He noted as well that he and his daughter attend the synagogue’s Family School together.

While many of Beth Haverim’s services have been held on Zoom, on warm weather days the congregation has met on the grounds in front of the synagogue, wearing masks, sitting in bubbles with their families, and obeying the rules of social distancing. With room to spread out and an outdoor sound system, “it’s been wonderful,” said Cantor Finkel, who came to the community from three years at Shir Hadash, a small congregation in St. Louis, as its spiritual leader. “There are so many important needs people have. Iris and the rabbi have been finding creative ways of allowing people to come together safely, to see their friends and feel connected to the community.”

Echoing other senior staff, Cantor Finkel said that the synagogue’s story “is adherence to its core mission. Services are important, but mah jongg is important too.” He pointed out that some groups have been getting together for 20 years, “maintaining a real community of friends.”

With a degree in film and electronic arts, Cantor Finkel has been able to help the synagogue “triple down” on such technologies as Zoom and livestream. He maintains a streaming site on Facebook, which showcases music videos and special events, such as the congregation’s Purim play. After the pandemic, “I won’t stop producing online content,” he said. “We’ll have to find a balance.” He said this year he underwent a trial by fire, getting an intensive education in “using technology to give people an opportunity to connect and get a new idea or perspective. People don’t want to stop growing.”

As restrictions are eased, “I want to hug people more,” Cantor Finkel said. “It’s one of the most important things human beings can do. Struggling with separation has allowed us to realize how important it is. I’m so relieved that the choir can come together.” He has yet to see students in person. “I work with them online. I want to see them in person and in larger groups, so we can build that community.”

Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, who spent the last eight years serving Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, is a third-generation rabbi. Her grandfather, Rabbi Sylvan Schwartzman z”l, was a teacher at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and her father, Rabbi Joel Schwartzman, was an Air Force chaplain and congregational rabbi.

Her father, cautioned her about what she might encounter with “New York Jews,” she said. “But I made him eat his words.”

Rabbi Schwartzman has traveled widely, living in Germany, Greece, and Israel and in many U.S. states. Now, she and her husband, Art Kieres, live in Hillsdale with their 4-year-old daughter, Sabine.

Her joy, she told the congregation when she was hired three years ago, lies in the interplay between intellectual Judaism and personal relationships. Fortunately, she said, she has found that combination at Beth Haverim-Shir Shalom.

“When I interviewed for this, I reached out to the rabbi of 13 years” — Rabbi Joel Mosbacher — “and said, ‘They’re so nice. I’m not sure I believe it. What are they hiding?’ He said ‘No. That’s who they actually are.’”

While she has been there a relatively short time, Ms. Schwartzman said her impression of the merger is that “it built a lot of bridges. You lose track of who lives where. It’s made for a larger, deeper community. It’s one of the most successful mergers I’ve seen.”

One change she’s noted has been that “while it’s still haimish, it’s turned more professional,” she said. “At the same time, there’s a core of people who are dedicated and still involved in everything. She cited Harris and Sue Reinstein — members for 48 years — who still participate actively, calling them “the epitome of the congregation.”

Rabbi Schwartzman said that one of her first initiatives at the synagogue was a “back-to-basics course, looking at Jewish texts to make sure we had the proper foundations. We ended up having three separate courses. For the last one, we invited different clergy from around the area to share their faith traditions with us. We went to their houses of worship and experienced it as a community. It was very interesting.”

Of course, during the pandemic, “everything needed to be recreated,” she continued. “We started doing Havdalah on Zoom, and especially at the height of the pandemic it provided a real lifeline.” Some pandemic-instigated activities will remain. “The Torah study group likes being online together, so we will keep that,” she said, joking that some members said they like to sit there with their coffee. “Also, some of our late night meetings will stay online,” making them more inclusive for families with young children or people who hesitate to drive after dark.

She hopes that now, once people have realized how vital institutions and communities are, they will “double down on the opportunity to invite more people to participate in what we have.” She is eager to draw in more people in their 20s and 30s, who right now may be focusing on “establishing themselves. Institutions are not a priority.”

What has been the synagogue’s biggest accomplishment? “There’s really not a person in the congregation who couldn’t reach out to any other person in the congregation and get a ‘yes’ to anything they asked,” she said. Her hope is to find a way to help the community continue to thrive.

Beth Haverim Shir Shalom’s president, Judy Teich, who lives in Nyack with her wife, Lois Schwartz, has been a member for some 25 years. Hailing from the Reform Temple of Suffern-Shir Shalom, she sat on that congregation’s merger committee, and like everyone else, she is happy with the result. “I feel like I’ve been involved in the synagogue forever,” she said, noting that she has served it in many different capacities. “My last position was as co-chair of the ritual committee.”

Ms. Teich said she thinks the shul’s strength is the “ability of the congregation to step up, whether volunteering or just giving of themselves through fundraisers.” Citing the struggles of religious institutions to maintain themselves, she said, “It’s part of what’s going on in the world, but we’re a strong community.”

While the last year was particularly challenging, Ms. Teich said she came into the presidency with the goal of developing new leadership. “That’s important. The old guard has done well but it’s time to let others come up,” she said. She is pleased to see new leaders stepping up in different capacities.

Harris and Sue Reinstein, who live in Ridgewood now, have been with the congregation “almost since the beginning,” Mr. Reinstein said. “We joined after we moved to Waldwick, and the temple was meeting in a Methodist church in Waldwick. “Our son was a little over 2, and it was just before Purim. We asked if we could bring him to the Purim carnival, and they said of course. We joined at that point.” At the time, he said, there were some 30 families involved.

“Both my wife and I were raised in Conservative synagogues” — he in Rockland County and Teaneck, she in Chicago — “but in college, after talking to the professors there and others, we felt closer to the ideology of the Reform movement. We liked their welcoming and openness.”

Between the two of them, the Reinsteins have held many positions at BHSS. Almost as soon as they joined, he was tapped to be treasurer. He also became chairman of the ritual committee and president of the Men’s Club. Now he’s on the board as building and grounds chair, while his wife is on the committee that sends out get well cards and condolences to members of the congregation. The couple go to services every Friday night, though lately that’s been on Zoom. “But they’re starting to come back in person,” Mr. Reinstein said.

Echoing the sentiments of the staff, Mr. Reinstein said that “the merger brought together two congregations of similar backgrounds, strengthening us as a community. Today we serve not only Bergen and Rockland, but there are members from Passaic and other areas as well. I’m very pleased.”

What has changed? Two things in particular, he said, noting the growth of the synagogue and the increase in its professional staff. While the congregation began with a part-time rabbi from Brooklyn — he came two Friday nights a month — it now has a rabbi, a cantor, an educational director, and an executive director. His hope is for the congregation to do “more of the same, going forward.”

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