Temple Emanu-El of Closter breaks symbolic ground
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Temple Emanu-El of Closter breaks symbolic ground

Emanu-El will expand from within

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The lawn at Temple Emanu-El was the scene of celebration as ground was ceremonially broken for an expansion project. Charles Zusman

While some Conservative and Reform synagogues are closing or merging, at least one in the area is experiencing growing pains. Temple Emanu-El of Closter, after a decade at its location in that borough, finds itself in the happy position of needing to expand its building.

With membership “tickling” 800 families, as Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner put it, the Conservative shul has embarked on a project to harvest unused space for religious and cultural purposes and held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the project April 18.

“Growth is the sign of a healthy synagogue,” Kirshner said, speaking of the project. “It’s … the idea that the synagogue is an inviting place. If people are comfortable coming to the synagogue, they’ll be comfortable in Jewish life.”

No “ground” was actually broken, since the project involves existing, but unused, space. Construction has already started to transform what members call “the lower pavilion” into an adult lounge, a youth lounge, office space, and a large all-purpose room, the last available as a second area for services on the High Holidays, for example. Congregants hope to see the project completed by the High Holidays, the rabbi said.

The fundraising drive is called “Campaign for the Next Generation,” and that tells the story of family connections at the synagogue, said Bob Cook. He serves as a member of the fundraising campaign along with Steve Rogers and Howard Brindel,

The need for a youth lounge is a sign of the temple’s vibrancy, said Cook. “The growth has been dramatic,” he continued, and thanks to innovative teaching programs, he said, the congregation is retaining youngsters after their bar/bat mitzvahs.

“We need more room, but we can’t change the footprint,” he said. The fundraising goal is $3.6 million, which will pay for the new construction and retire the old mortgage. What had been going into mortgage payments will now go into other programs, Cook explained.

Speaking of the adult lounge, or moadon, the rabbi said it will be on the Starbucks model, with Jewish and secular periodicals available. “It will be a welcoming environment,” Kirshner said, a place to read and catch up. “A synagogue is not just for prayer. It’s a place to engage …, to study and relax.”

The congregation goes back 83 years, to Englewood, Cook said. The new building, on a spacious, wooded tract in Closter, was constructed with the lower level available for future expansion. For Emanu-El, that future is now.

Cook’s involvement serves as an example of the generational theme. President of the congregation some 20 years ago, he stepped aside to allow younger people to get involved. Now, with eight of his 11 grandchildren involved in the synagogue in one way or another (the other three live out of the area), his family connections span three generations. The congregation is growing, and he became “re-energized” because of the family connection, Cook said.

In assessing the congregation’s growth, the rabbi said that the religious school, serving youngsters in kindergarten through grade 12, follows a “totally interactive” approach with “station learning.” Hebrew is taught with the aid of an IPAD, Kirshner said. It’s a much more “tangible way to learn,” he said. “We have to get out of the box.”

The rabbi also spoke of the TewJu program of adult education. That stands for Temple Emanu-El Wednesday Jewish University. “We hope to get as many people [into the synagogue] on a Wednesday as we do on a Saturday or Sunday,” he said.

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