Responding to a downward demographic shift in New Milford, Cong. Beth Tikvah/New Milford Jewish Center is trying something new tonight by holding Shabbat services in Tenafly. Some members, as a response to the lack of growth in Conservative Judaism in general, are beginning to think of rebranding Beth Tikvah as a regional shul.
The Tenafly service is meant to introduce families there to the shul just two towns over, and attract them to its Hebrew school, which will relocate to the affluent suburb in the fall. While Beth Tikvah is not abandoning New Milford, the move is a response to a decreasing number of Conservative families in the area.
Faced with a dwindling number of young Conservative families in New Milford, Cong. Beth Tikvah is moving its Hebrew school to Tenafly this fall.
Although the center has 140 to 150 member families, the Conservative population of New Milford is aging. While the area along the Teaneck and Bergenfield borders is seeing a rise in Orthodox families, young Conservative families are not moving to the borough, according to Beth Tikvah’s leaders.
"The whole area New Milford, Bergenfield, Dumont used to have a large Jewish population," said Scott Solomon, Beth Tikvah’s president. "Where we are, there’s just not a lot of young Jewish families moving in so we figured we’d go where the families are."
This year’s Hebrew school has a total enrollment of nine students, only two of whom are from New Milford. Branching out is the only option for the shul to thrive, said Cantor Steve Blane, Beth Tikvah’s religious leader.
"Truth be told, there are no Conservative Jews in New Milford anymore," Blane said. "It makes no sense to continue to run a school in New Milford where there are no Conservative families left with children to send to the school. Yet we have a wonderful facility. The question was how to make a bridge for people searching for such a solution."
Tenafly, with its large Israeli population, the JCC on the Palisades, and a thriving Chabad, has no Conservative options. Less than a 15-minute drive away and without a building fund, Beth Tikvah is the perfect option for the area’s unaffiliated Jews, Blane said. With established Conservative shuls already in Teaneck and Bergenfield, Tenafly and its surrounding communities are the only untapped market for Beth Tikvah.
"The reality is there are too many Conservative synagogues in Bergen County," said Blane. "There’s not enough interest in affiliating with the Conservative movement these days."
He added, "The only possibility for us to embrace a younger community where there is growth is in the Tenafly/Cresskill/Englewood area. This is an innovative approach. It’s also a practical approach."
To begin drawing in Tenafly residents, Beth Tikvah will hold four Friday night services through the coming months, beginning tonight. Services will run as usual in New Milford tonight but without Blane, who will conduct a musical service at Tenafly’s Clinton Inn. The service will allow families to meet him and learn about the new school, which will begin classes in an as-yet-undetermined location in September.
Just as it does in New Milford, the school will meet Monday and Wednesday afternoons with a once-a-month session during Shabbat morning services. Sundays, Blane said, have become a "family day" and parents shouldn’t have to wake their kids early to get them to school. No location has been chosen yet for the school but Solomon expects one to be finalized by the summer.
For the foreseeable future, Beth Tikvah will stay put in New Milford, rather than move to a more central location, which would require a new building. With loud rumblings of a recession, the lack of a building fund should be a big draw for Beth Tikvah, Blane said.
"If you build a new synagogue somewhere, you have to have a building fund," Blane said. "In this economy, why would anybody want to build a new synagogue in the Conservative movement when we’re struggling?"
Asked if Beth Tikvah could become a regional shul, Blane said the synagogue leadership might be open to the idea. Solomon agreed.
"This would be a good thing," said Solomon. "As you see in a lot of areas in the country, that’s what you have: a synagogue that reaches out to the neighboring communities. I think it’s the future of the Conservative movement to have a regional synagogue."