For Ellen Finkelstein, joining Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro forged a life-changing, enduring connection to Judaism.
“I know it sounds corny, but it’s really true,” she told NJJN in a phone interview. She was drawn to the Reform synagogue, she said, because rather than being “ostentatious and showy,” it was “homey.”
Finkelstein was among those who celebrated the 250-family synagogue’s 36th “double chai” anniversary at a gala held Jan. 27 at Aurum Events & Caterers in Freehold.
Finkelstein said when she was growing up, her family belonged to an Orthodox synagogue, “but we didn’t live the life. It made no sense to me and I left Judaism.” When a friend convinced her and her husband, Neal, to try a Reform synagogue, they found a different kind of Judaism, she said. Shortly after moving from North Carolina to New Jersey in 1985, the couple joined Rodeph Torah.
“When we came to Marlboro we didn’t know anyone, but at the temple it’s very easy to get to know people and easy to get involved,” said Finkelstein. “They welcome you with open arms.”
When the Finkelsteins joined the congregation, there were fewer than 100 families and they met in the Asher Holmes Elementary School in Marlboro. Finkelstein joined the temple’s membership committee after Rabbi Donald Weber suggested that the best way to bring in new members was to let others know about your own reasons for joining. Finkelstein has served as temple vice president and president, continues to sit on the youth committee, and chairs the volunteer growth/nominating committee.
She said she came to love the periodic women’s Shabbat dinners and services, which are written by Rabbi Shira Stern — the temple’s rabbinic associate and Weber’s wife — and in which Cantor Joanna Alexander participates.
Neal Finkelstein is also an active member; he has served as chair of the worship committee and as men’s club president and continues to lead shiva minyans and Saturday morning alternative services.
The couple’s daughters, now 38 and 35, grew up in the congregation, were active in its National Federation of Temple Youth chapter, and attended the Reform movement’s URJ Camp Harlam; both were married by Weber.
Now with children of their own, they “love Reform Judaism and are still practicing Reform Jews,” said Finkelstein, adding Rodeph Torah “is our home.”
The temple’s origins go back to October 1980, when Joan Hollander and Marilyn Abrams placed a sign in a local supermarket expressing interest in starting a Reform congregation. The first meeting, at a mall in Morganville, drew 35-40 people.
By the summer of 1981, about 20 families were holding Shabbat services and holiday celebrations in people’s homes. With help from the Reform movement, a charter was drafted. A group of women, many of them teachers, developed a curriculum, and a religious school was started that September, meeting in what is now the Defino Central Elementary School in Marlboro. By 1982, the congregation, now using the name Rodeph Torah, was holding Shabbat services at the school every other week. Later that year, as membership grew to 100 families, they moved to the Asher Holmes school.
Weber was hired in 1984 and a search began for land on which to build a synagogue. The congregation purchased the seven-acre site in August 1986; by then, membership stood at about 150 families. By the time the land was being cleared in 1989, 200 families were members, with 300 religious school students.
Although the building was not yet complete, the congregation held High Holiday services in the sanctuary in 1989, and in February 1990, the Torah scrolls were brought in and a mezuzah was affixed to the door.
Current temple president Robbin Friedell had virtually no connection to Judaism when she joined Rodeph Torah 25 years ago. She had “always wanted to belong to a synagogue,” Friedell said, “but my parents did not participate in any congregation.”
She joined Rodeph Torah when the oldest of her three sons, now 32, 29, and 26, was nearing bar mitzvah age. She “fell in love” with Weber and “that building,” and “there was no turning back,” said Friedell. “The people, the community are warm and loving and inviting. The clergy is exceptional; the services are creative. They are always interesting and inspiring. The temple just offers so much for so many people.”
Friedell said she particularly loves the temple’s Rock Shabbat services, its “fabulous” adult education classes, and its social events, where “hundreds of people gather together to eat and dance and enjoy each other’s company outside the temple walls.”
Weber said that a highlight of his tenure at the temple has been being “blessed with an extraordinary group of adults” interested in Jewish learning.
His adult classes — offered during the afternoons and evenings — “are the best part of my week,” said Weber. More than 120 congregants have been honored by the Reform movement for completing 100 hours of study, and of them, more than 20 have completed 365 hours.
He said he especially cherishes “the relationships with thousands of people over the years. I’m still in touch with most of my students, and I’ve developed a relationship with almost every family in the temple over more than 30 years.
“One of the most rewarding things has been when someone calls and says, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but you did this, and it changed my life,’” said the rabbi.
Weber is also proud that the congregation has embraced the mitzvah of feeding the hungry. Virtually every bar and bat mitzvah family uses baskets containing food boxes, rather than flowers, to decorate the sanctuary, with the food collected and the money saved going to help those in need. The synagogue conducts several drives each year for the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties; the High Holiday drive alone, begun in the 1980s, now brings in about five tons of food, said Weber.
The monthly Friday night Rock Shabbat services, started more than seven years ago, have now expanded to Saturday mornings. “I knew it would be fun, but I didn’t realize how spiritual it would be,” said Weber. “We’ve brought in some extraordinary artists and learned from everyone.” About four years ago, an alternative Rock Hashanah service was launched.
Stern, in addition to her duties at Rodeph Torah, is director of the Center for Pastoral Care and Counseling in Marlboro. She has a long history in chaplaincy and the rabbinate, previously serving as chaplain for the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and as rabbi of Monroe Township Jewish Center, now Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center.
Brion Feinberg, a member since 1999, said that it was the focus on learning that hooked him on the temple. “I’ve taken classes on Talmud, the history of Jews in America, courses on ethics, and a variety of other subjects. Rabbi Weber is a fantastic teacher.
“Rodeph Torah actually means study of Torah, and for me it’s all about learning and discovering things,” said Feinberg, a former president who still serves on the congregation board.
The synagogue also became central to his family. His wife, Ellen, is active in sisterhood and in social action work, including the temple’s coat drive for the poor in Trenton. Their two sons, now in their 20s, grew up, Feinberg said, as “shul rats,” enthusiastically involved in the religious school and youth group.
Feinberg admires the congregation’s willingness to innovate.
A few years ago, on Yom Kippur, a “sacred texting” program was launched; it has congregants anonymously texting questions about issues within the Jewish community to facilitate an open discussion.
While Feinberg admitted that the first year “it was a little weird being told to take out your phones and use them on Yom Kippur,” it is that readiness to explore different avenues of learning and engagement that makes Rodeph Torah special.
“As I learned over the years and discovered more about myself, it became addictive,” he said. “So much so I just want others to find the joy I’ve found in Judaism in their synagogues.”