Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David kicked off its 50th anniversary in a big way: An oversized tallit, 10 feet by 14 feet, hung from the ceiling in the West Orange synagogue’s entry lobby for the Sept. 30 evening celebration.
In the center of the tallit, designed by Israeli artist Adina Gatt, are the words from the end of the Amida, in the Sim Shalom prayer, “Barcheinu Avinu, kulanu k’ehad b’or panecha” — “Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of your face.”
“It represents the idea of ahdut, unity of the community,” said Mali Schwartz, who worked with the artist on the tallit and has spearheaded a group of 30 volunteers planning celebrations throughout the year.
Families can have their children’s names embroidered on the tallit for a donation of $4 per Hebrew letter. So far, 75 families have participated. Children were to receive a special blessing under the enormous prayer shawl on Simhat Torah.
“The tallit is a tangible way to remember our 50th,” said Schwartz. “It’s also a way to get younger families involved.”
The ritual shawl’s creation was sponsored by four synagogue families: Andrea and Bryan Bier, the Raskin Family, Andrea and Ronnie Sultan, and Dr. Marvin and Dr. Roz Lipsky.
In addition to last month’s Sukkot barbecue and tallit dedication, anniversary events will include speakers, kiddush luncheons, and a scholar-in-residence, culminating with Jubilee festivities at the synagogue’s annual dinner.
The Orthodox synagogue earned its lengthy and tongue-twisting name — whose initials have earned it the nickname the “alphabet shul” — from a series of mergers that began in the 19th century.
Ahawas Achim Anshe Warshaw, a synagogue founded by immigrants in Newark in 1898, merged in 1935 with Anshe Lemberg B’nai Jacob (itself the product of another Newark merger) to become Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob. In 1966, it merged with B’nai David, the first Orthodox synagogue in West Orange, founded in 1961.
The merged West Orange community continued to absorb congregations as they left Newark.
The new congregation moved to Pleasant Valley Way from B’nai David’s rented home on Eagle Rock Avenue, and later purchased a Baptist Church on Pleasant Valley Way. By 1968 they had hired Rabbi Alvin Marcus, who stayed with the congregation through 1998, when he was installed as rabbi emeritus. Rabbi Yaakov Sprung served from then to August 2004 and was followed by Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, who currently holds the pulpit.
Meryl Levine of West Orange, a longtime South Orange resident, came to the kickoff event. According to her family lore, B’nai David was started by her father, Lee Kahn, with help from his brother Bernie. They named it for her grandfather, David Kahn.
“It was my father’s dream to start an Orthodox synagogue in West Orange,” she told NJJN.
(Other founders tell slightly different versions. Interviewed by AABJ&D for a previous event, cofounder Harry Katz said it was his Uncle Sid’s idea. Visiting one Pesach and trudging to a faraway Orthodox synagogue, he pointed out to Harry and his brother David, “There are men and women here who want an Orthodox service, so you should start a new synagogue and hire a rabbi to conduct your services.”)
Levine’s family moved into town in 1959, when she was eight years old. “There were not a lot of Orthodox Jewish families in West Orange at the time,” she said.
Nonetheless, she said, her father “gathered 18 other families, and they started B’nai David.” Initial meetings were indeed held at the home of Sarah and David Katz, organized by Harry’s wife, Toby. By all accounts, the women played a significant role in attracting other families through the sisterhood they established. Levine remembers her mother, Gloria Kahn, pouring her creative talents into the synagogue, writing parodies and then choreographing and performing in them with the other women.
“And once they were part of the sisterhood, they had to join the synagogue!” Levine quipped.
Levine loved the tight-knit community they all formed, breaking the Yom Kippur fast at the home of Sarah and David Katz, or walking to the park together. “Everyone knew everyone,” she said.
Josh Marcus, Rabbi Alvin Marcus’s son, participated in one of four video interviews shown at the kickoff event. Josh was four when his father took the AABJ&D pulpit, and he now lives in the community with his own family.
“We were Orthodox, non-Orthodox. People were not necessarily shomer Shabbat, but they wanted a day school, a yeshiva,” he said.
He told the story of what the congregation’s first president, Morris Raven, said to his father when they hired him: “This community is not much to look at, but if you want to build it, you can.” Josh Marcus can remember finding his father in the building doing all kinds of odd jobs, including “cleaning chalk boards and mopping the floors. We didn’t have anyone to do that.” His father, Marcus said, embraced the community and its diversity; he “loved the people and loved the community and built it up that way. He always felt the shul should be open to everyone.”
Bobbie Luxenberg, whose family, the Raskins, are among the sponsors of the tallit, grew up in the community and moved back to raise her own family. Her mother is still part of the congregation. Luxenberg said the congregation’s openness distinguishes it from other communities. “There are older people, younger people, people with different educational backgrounds, people who lean right, people who lean left, people who are more centrist. There is no judgment. We are here to care about each other,” she said.
Levine’s father died last year, but she could imagine his pride on the synagogue’s 50th anniversary. “He would be beaming from ear to ear” to see all the children, she said. “It just would have been amazing if he could see the 50th anniversary, with 450 congregants and a thriving nursery school, starting from just 18 people.”