When Rabbi Ari Saks took over the pulpit at Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy a year ago, he knew part of his job was to attract new members to the historic Conservative synagogue.
The 116-year-old shul is the last one functioning in a city that was once home to one of the largest and oldest Jewish populations in the state, most of whom left for the suburbs in recent decades.
The only other remaining synagogue, 110-year-old Orthodox Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh, has been sold, pending litigation, to a meditation group. (See related story.)
Through innovative programming and active recruitment in the last year, Beth Mordecai has seen modest growth, leaving the rabbi feeling optimistic about the synagogue’s future.
The membership, which has been mostly older and comes from outside the city, now stands at about 90 family units and individuals. In the last year, about 15 new members joined, while another three “strong prospects” are considering joining. At its peak, the congregation had more than 400 families.
Beth Mordecai is economically stable thanks to trust accounts and endowments and the $300,000 it received in 2006 from the sale of the 103-year-old YMHA of Perth Amboy.
“There has been growth without a doubt,” said Saks. “Interest in participating in the synagogue has also been growing. In past years we’ve really struggled, but this year we’ve been much more consistent in getting people out. Our Shabbat services always draw at least 15 people, if not more.”
A number of “grandparent Shabbats” have created a family Shabbat experience. Building on their success, a monthly family service rotating between Friday night and Saturday morning will be held.
Beth Mordecai forged a relationship with the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison; it will cosponsor events there with Edison’s Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen.
On Aug. 4 the rabbi and his wife, Rachel, hosted a barbecue for more than 20 young members and others affiliated with the synagogue.
A traditional service will be held the first day of Rosh Hashana; the second-day service will be shorter and will feature storytelling, chanting, meditation, and other spiritual approaches. “I don’t believe the second day should be Groundhog Day, where we have the same experience,” said Saks. The services on day two, Friday, Sept. 6, will feature Bronwen Mullin, a playwright, composer, and third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
That service, which is free, will, said Saks, “allow people to not just sit back and listen but also to participate.”
The synagogue will join with the city and YMCA of Perth Amboy on Sunday, Oct. 20, in cosponsoring the first annual Perth Amboy Harvest Festival and Duck Race, during which “adopted” rubber ducks will race in the Raritan Bay. Prizes will be awarded to the winners, and proceeds will be split between the YMCA and synagogue.
A homecoming weekend will be held for former and current members March 14-16.
The synagogue’s “reasonable” $799 annual dues for a family and $499 for an individual should also be a draw, said Saks.
However, it’s been some years since there were enough children to sustain a religious school, a challenge in attracting young families.
Saks has had some success in remedying that after announcing at last year’s High Holy Day services that he “wanted to return Jewish learning to where it belongs — in the home.” Saks offered to help members learn as a family and to work with each child individually.
“The Sh’ma tells us the most important place for children to gain a sense of Judaism is in the home,” Saks said. “It’s good to learn things in Hebrew school, but if they’re not practiced in the home it goes in one ear and out the other. Today parents look to the rabbi or Hebrew school to outsource Jewish learning.”
Ryan and Roberta Gast are taking advantage of the at-home arrangement. The rabbi comes to the family’s Bradley Beach home to work with their three-year-old son Max once a month.
Although Roberta is not Jewish, they began attending services when she was pregnant. Ryan’s father, Michael, grew up at Beth Mordecai and is its former president.
“I now take my son to shul once a month,” Ryan said. “It’s really very personal. The rabbi comes to my home, and we go over different lesson plans. We’ve done the mezuza, Shabbat candles, blessing the bread. I think it’s important to get a child interested in Judaism at a young age, and the rabbi’s doing it in a really fun way. I would absolutely recommend these arrangements to other young families — the rabbi is wonderful.”
Because Conservative Judaism does not consider a child born of a non-Jewish mother Jewish, Max will undergo a formal conversion later this month.
Ryan said he liked the small congregation, where Max is the youngest member, and he has confidence in Saks’s ability “to attract young families and try to get the ball rolling there.”