The Jewish Center of Teaneck voted Tuesday night to install a mechitza in its main sanctuary to separate men from women, completing the synagogue’s long transition from Conservative to Orthodox.
The vote was 79 to 38 in favor, just more than the two-thirds supermajority required. This was one more vote against the change than a similar measure drew in January, but 20 more votes in favor.
The measure was strongly urged by the shul’s board, which said that it confronted a choice between Orthodoxy and closing down.
“The town of Teaneck is Orthodox,” Arthur Freiman told the congregation on behalf of the board. “We must make the change given the changing population of Teaneck,” he said.
He also noted that in 2010 18 members died, while eight new members joined who were affiliated with the synagogue’s longstanding Orthodox minyan. The Orthodox minyan draws more members than the traditional minyan, according to the synagogue’s president, Eva Lynn Gans.
When the mechitza is installed, the congregation will have only one service on Shabbat and holidays. An additional service with mixed seating will be held for the High Holidays.
“It will take some time to implement,” Gans said of the change. “We need to think about how we handle it to make people comfortable.”
Gans said she first came to the synagogue as a child, 60 years ago. At its peak, the congregation had 1,400 families.
“We want to be known as an extremely welcoming synagogue,” she said. “Everyone is welcome regardless of their personal belief and how they observe.”
For Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, the vote culminated a process that began when he was hired five years ago with the understanding that he would work to make the synagogue Orthodox.
“It was probably a good five years before that that the discussion began,” he
said. “Change is not easy.”
Zierler said that he was moved by an argument made by one opponent of the change about not wanting to be separated at services from a spouse with Alzheimer’s.
“The challenge will be for us to recognize who is in shul with us,” he said, and to focus on their needs, not just on the prayers.
Zierler and Gans said they hoped that now that the synagogue is fully Orthodox, participants in other programs at the Jewish Center will consider becoming members.
“I don’t think every member has to daven with us,” said Zierler. “Membership is defined by any number of different encounters with the institution.”
Zierler said he strongly believed in the “Jewish center” model of the synagogue, which has also been referred to as “a shul with a pool.”
“It’s like Abraham’s tent, which was open to all directions. The non-transcendent can transform into something transcendent. I have people in leadership here who first became involved in the basketball league.”
Besides its gym and swim programs, Zierler is hoping to create an afterschool homework center.
“You need a demographic that spans the ages,” said Zierler. “You need the energy of youth and the experience of age.”