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A synagogue rises from the ashes in Highland Park
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A synagogue rises from the ashes in Highland Park

Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, the religious leader during construction of its now debt-free building, burns the first page of Congregation Ahavas Achim’s mortgage. Photo by Debra Rubin
Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, the religious leader during construction of its now debt-free building, burns the first page of Congregation Ahavas Achim’s mortgage. Photo by Debra Rubin

A synagogue that once saw its future go up in smoke now looks to a future burning brightly with promise.

On Sept. 10 at a celebratory barbecue in Donaldson Park in Highland Park, Congregation Ahavas Achim burned — literally — the $600,000 mortgage on its building, which was paid off July 9.   

The 200 congregants of the Orthodox synagogue who joyfully watched the pages go up in a puff of smoke stood in stark contrast to the scene in 1980 when the congregation returned from the afternoon break on Yom Kippur to find their shul, then located in New Brunswick, engulfed in flames from an electrical fire.

Even though only a tiny section of the building was left usable, the now-128-year-old congregation was determined to survive. With many of its members already having left New Brunswick for the adjacent suburb of Highland Park, the leaders decided to follow.  

The shul moved to the former Masonic Lodge on North Third Avenue in Highland Park as it launched a fund-raising campaign to rebuild. Although the new building was not yet complete, the first service on South First Avenue was held on Shavuot in 1989. In December 2010, Ahavas Achim dedicated its Imre and Rachel Lefkovits Synagogue, a $1.5 million renovation and expansion. 

With the renovation also paid off within the last year, vice president of fundraising Avi Grin declared, “We are now debt free and it feels great.”

Rabbi Steven Miodownik said the synagogue, which had approximately 135 member families when it first arrived in Highland Park, now has more than 300, many of them with young children, and membership continues to grow. Although there are no specific plans, he said the congregation will funnel its additional funds into programming to attract new members and engage those already there.

As children kicked soccer balls and played, and adults noshed on barbecued brisket, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, and watermelon along the banks of the Raritan River, Miodownik took the microphone to speak about the ritual of Tashlich, the symbolic casting of sins into the water on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. 

Noting that the congregation would soon be returning to the park for Tashlich, Miodownik drew a comparison between the ritual and paying off the mortgage. 

“After 30 years of throwing our money into the water and pishing it away, we can use the funds to make Ahavas Achim even better.”

He praised the congregants for their dedication to bringing the synagogue to this point. “Mazel tov Ahavas Achim,” he said.

Afterward, pages of the mortgage were lit over a trash can by synagogue leaders, starting with Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, spiritual leader from 1986 until 2006 and still a member, who set the first page aflame. 

In the background the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” played. Thirty-seven years ago the song’s reprise, “Burn baby burn,” would have been heartbreaking. On this day it was cause for celebration.

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