When Paul Robinson and his wife Lenore joined Temple Shalom in Aberdeen in 1970, they had a fairly simple goal — to find a place for their son to become a bar mitzva.
Now, 43 years later, Paul is president of the congregation and getting ready for its golden anniversary celebration scheduled for May 10-11 capped by a Saturday night gala dinner.
“I never thought that becoming a member would spark a love of Judaism in me,” he said. “My own bar mitzva had been at a small Orthodox shul in Brooklyn, and that experience turned me off.”
But when his family came on board at Temple Shalom, which was just seven years old at the time, he was quickly invited to join the Social Action Committee. Accepting that request to take on efforts to benefit the community — “I have a difficult time being able to say ‘No,’” he admitted — led to more than four decades of learning, commitment, and service.
The Reform temple also had a profound effect on the couple’s son Bill, who is building a career as a Jewish professional; he is currently chief strategy officer at The Jewish Education Project in Manhattan.
Rabbi Laurence Malinger, religious leader of the congregation since 1999, suggested that Temple Shalom’s most striking attribute is its ability to nurture the development of strong connections — on both a personal and Jewish level. “People here help each other,” he said. “This is a warm, welcoming congregation where we study together, celebrate together, and socialize together.”
The rabbi, who grew up in the South and Midwest, where there were few options for Jewish life outside the synagogue, said, “That’s not as true here in the Northeast, so it’s imperative for a congregation to create compelling opportunities that will engage its members.”
Temple Shalom has done that over the course of half a century by offering programs for everyone from preschoolers to empty-nesters to seniors. Malinger said he is particularly proud of the way in which the members have embraced causes that support social justice and emergency needs in such varied ways as remembering the Holocaust and providing aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Family continuity is evident in the experience of founding members Renee and Andy Sackerman. Their daughters, Melissa and Pamela, and their families are now members. One of the Sackermans’ grandchildren had his bar mitzva at Temple Shalom in 2012, and a granddaughter will have her bat mitzva there in 2014.
The couple also had a son who died when he was struck by a car at age nine. “The temple provided tremendous emotional support and helped us through the worst time of our lives,” said Andy Sackerman. In tribute to the child, the temple’s outdoor patio area is named the Alfred Sackerman Memorial Garden.
The Sackermans said they are typical of many members who have made Temple Shalom integral to their lifestyle. “This is where we participate in bridge games and celebrate b’nei mitzva,” said Andy, who was the temple’s second treasurer in 1964-65, and its third president the following year. Renee headed up sisterhood in 1966-67.
The congregation was organized in 1963 by newcomers to Monmouth County, most of them from New York City and Newark, virtually all of them living in Strathmore, a Levitt community with some 1,900 homes in Matawan Township, which later became Aberdeen Township.
“About a third of the houses were occupied by Jews,” Andy Sackerman recalled. “In fact, the builder donated a parcel of land on which we could build a synagogue.”
Renee Sackerman told of members of the founders’ committee going door-to-door, asking their new neighbors if they were Jewish, and inviting those who were to join the fledgling congregation.
For the first four years, most services were held in the Strathmore Elementary School, and the Torah was stored through the week in a locked school closet. In the summer, the scroll was kept on a couch in the Sackermans’ bedroom. Temple members would carry the scroll from their home to the homes of other members where services were held on a rotating basis.
In these early years, the auditorium of the local high school hosted High Holy Day services, and members even used a nearby movie theater on occasion.
The congregation grew rapidly, but members soon saw the need for two synagogues to satisfy various approaches to Jewish philosophy and observance. The Temple Shalom group, a Reform congregation, held onto the land donated by Levitt at the corner of Church Street and Ayrmont Lane in Aberdeen; others left to form what is now the Conservative Temple Beth Ahm, also in Aberdeen.
Money that had been collected toward a building was divided so that both groups could go forward. Temple Shalom opened the doors to its new home in 1967.
About a decade later, there was another split, with some Beth Ahm members founding the Orthodox Young Israel of Aberdeen/Congregation Bet Tefilah. From the original seed, three congregations have survived for decades, eventually attracting numerous families from the entire area, including Matawan, Marlboro, Hazlet, Middletown, and Holmdel.
Two major expansions — in the early and late ’70s — added classrooms, a lobby, a social hall, and a large kitchen suitable for catering needs.
“At our zenith, about 15 years ago, Temple Shalom had 535 families,” said Andy Sackerman. Now the number is about 300, reflecting challenges being felt by many congregations as populations and attitudes shift, and economic pressures increase, he said.
But at the May 10-11 events, members will focus on the good times.
Rabbi Dan Freelander, executive vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will speak at Friday evening Shabbat services, Robinson told NJJN. Graduates of the temple’s religious school who have gone on to become Jewish professionals will also participate.
At the Shabbat morning service, congregants will honor temple founders; past and present presidents of the temple, brotherhood, and sisterhood; and past and present directors of the nursery and religious schools.
At both services, congregants will use A Journey, a siddur created for the occasion.
At the Saturday night gala, which will include a cocktail hour, dinner, and dancing, Cantor Debi Zeiontz will entertain with songs from Broadway musicals.
Under the guidance of Cindy Terebush, director of Temple Shalom Schools, students — from the Early Learning Center through high schoolers — are being asked to write about what Temple Shalom means to them and to submit artwork with their vision of what Temple Shalom will be like 50 years from now.
Temple Shalom’s longevity also has been recognized in Congress. On Feb. 27, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-Dist. 6) offered a congratulatory message in which he praised the temple members for their dedication to “social action, advocating for issues important to the community, and providing aid to those in need.”
The temple also is noteworthy for its stability in the pulpit. Malinger is now in his 14th year as senior rabbi. His predecessor, Rabbi Henry Weiner, who held the post for 32 years, now lives in Israel.