For a number of years, Harriet Hessdorf and some of her fellow members at Congregation Beth El in South Orange wanted to form a lay-led minyan.
With training in davening and ritual from their cantor, Perry Fine, quite a few had learned to lead services, and they actually held a few in the synagogue’s library. But for the most part, the idea remained just a vague aspiration.
Then late last year, a rift in the congregation crystallized their determination. When the congregation leadership opted not to renew Fine’s contract after 19 years, Hessdorf and other like-minded members decided to break away. They held their first service in October, and in December formally established the South Orange-Maplewood (SoMa) Independent Minyan, with 70 families signed up.
“Leaving was very painful,” said Hessdorf, the minyan’s first president. “We have close friends in the congregation, and we loved seeing them every week at services. It was a difficult time, but what we’re doing now is so exciting.”
SoMa member Nancy Isaacson of Maplewood said, “Out of the pain of that separation has come a beautiful, loving community. It’s been so joyful, it’s cancelled out any negativity from the past.”
At a chat with them and a cluster of other board members over coffee in Maplewood last week, that feeling was reiterated again and again. They talked with the fervor of pioneers. Between 50 and 60 people come to their Saturday morning services. At Purim, about 80 turned up.
“The ruah — the spirit — was phenomenal,” said Phil Litwinoff of West Orange, who previously served on Beth El’s board of trustees. (In July, Litwinoff begins a two-year term as president of the board of trustees of New Jersey Jewish News.)
Their main challenge has been finding a permanent venue. At first they met in members’ homes, but they outgrew that option. They have rented commercial spaces locally since then, but are still in search of the ideal spot. Given that quite a few members live in towns other than South Orange and Maplewood, and that they might have found cheaper space elsewhere, they did consider relocating. But by unanimous agreement, they chose to stay within walking distance of those members — like Hessdorf and her family — who are shomer Shabbat and walk to services from their home in South Orange.
‘New and meaningful’
Approached for a comment, Bill Gold, the president of Beth El, told NJ Jewish News that the group’s departure was a loss but not a disruptive one for the congregation.
“Any time you have a number of members leaving, the gap is noticed. It was unfortunate, in that friendships were broken. But we’re doing fine,” he said. “We’ve just held one of the best attended fund-raising events we’ve had in years.”
Beth El has not yet hired another cantor.
“We’re in the process of doing some strategic planning, and we’re considering what type of musical support we want to have,” said Gold. “By this time next year, it will have been decided. Meanwhile, we have plenty of people to draw on. This congregation is overflowing with extraordinary talent.”
Fine now has a new full-time position with Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, but the new minyan’s members credit him with helping the group get established. He sang for them during services in the early weeks and he remains their go-to person for guidance.
“He still helps us if we have questions, and he has been very supportive, but we do everything ourselves,” said member Lisa Small, another Maplewood resident.
The minyan has celebrated the High Holy Days, and Saturday morning services, followed by a potluck kiddush and a discussion that can go on for hours, especially if there has been a particularly stimulating d’var Torah, an analysis of the portion of the week.
Leaders of SoMa are not eager for it to grow too big, but they are still open to new members. To encourage people to see what they are all about, they are offering free tickets to High Holy Day services. For those days, they will have a singer, cantorial student Eliana Kissner, who grew up at Beth El. They will also offer children’s services.
Nikki Pusin of Maplewood, the group’s incoming president, who grew up in an observant home and still teaches in the religious school at Beth El, is one of those who leads services for the minyan. “It reminds me of the services we used to have in college,” she said. “It’s very intimate.”
Already, the minyan has marked a number of life-cycle events. Small, who joined the hevra kadisha, or burial society, formed by Fine at Beth El, led a group that performed tahara — the ritual cleansing and preparation of the deceased’s body — for the mother of one of the minyan members. In September they have a teenager’s bat mitzva celebration scheduled, and earlier in June they had one for an adult member, 73-year-old Dan Anbar.
Anbar was a member of Beth El for almost 25 years. “That is where my daughter celebrated her bat mitzva,” he said. Growing up in Israel in a secular family, he never had a bar mitzva ceremony as a boy. It was only when he settled in the United States that he joined a congregation and got involved with his religion.
“I found that outside of Israel I must belong if I want to preserve my identity as a Jew and pass this tradition to my daughter,” he said. The minyan, he said, has become “for me and my family something new and very meaningful. This year would have been the 60th anniversary of my bar mitzva celebration had I celebrated one, and celebrating it with my SoMa ‘family’ felt just right.”