Forty years ago, when three synagogues in North Brunswick and South Brunswick decided to throw their fortunes together to become what is now Congregation B’nai Tikvah, they took a chance that their divergent congregations would mesh.
That merger of Congregation Sharri Shalom, Temple Beth Shalom, and the North Brunswick Jewish Community Center brought together congregants described by Rabbi Robert Wolkoff as a mix of “locals, suburbanites, and communist egg farmers.”
Four decades later, some original members remain and others have joined the thriving mix at the North Brunswick congregation. To celebrate its milestone anniversary, the congregation held a March 24 gala at the synagogue.
“We place a real emphasis on the joy of getting together,” said Wolkoff, who is entering his 11th year as rabbi. “This is the hardest-partying congregation I’ve ever been at. People are just so happy to get together.”
To illustrate congregants’ conviviality, Wolkoff talked about an art auction he and his wife, Ruth-Ann Breitler, attended last year at the Conservative synagogue. “We walked around for an hour or two, but we never got to see the art,” he said. “People just wanted to stop and kibitz with us.”
A hallmark of the congregation, Wolkoff said, has been its “mature lay leadership,” whose members don’t “treat the synagogue like their own personal sandbox. They’re dedicated people who want to figure out the right thing. That gentility becomes infectious.
“When people talk about the synagogue, it’s only in the most positive terms.”
Wolkoff described the shul’s longtime cantor, Bruce Rockman, as a “rock star” and “miracle worker with the bar and bat mitzvah kids.”
“We are unabashedly and proudly centrist pro-Israel, and we in no way hide our pro-Israel inclinations,” said Wolkoff. “Frankly, we’re a little appalled at the ambivalence toward Israel we hear from others who come to our congregation because their other congregations were not supportive enough of Israel.”
B’nai Tikvah president Adrienne Ross said the synagogue is “a place people came to and found a home.” Congregants become family, she said, and like any family, “we understand there are some differences but also some shared values.”
“I think it’s because we’re warm and welcoming,” said Ross, a member for more than 30 years, during which time the shul has had three rabbis. That welcoming philosophy includes non-Jewish members of congregants’ families. “We’re always very welcoming to interfaith families, and we’ve done what we can to make the interfaith partner feel welcome.”
Another benefit of the leadership, Ross said: “We really try to keep people engaged and not just focus on life-cycle events.”
Noting that 10-15 percent of the more than 300-family unit membership have moved to the adult communities of Monroe, Wolkoff said, he now holds afternoon adult education programs there rather than at the synagogue. “We make sure they feel a part of the community,” said Ross.
For younger members, she said, “We maintain a family Shabbat once a month for people with young children that’s actually been a wonderful program for interfaith families to learn together and create a fellowship with other members of the Jewish community.”
That warm atmosphere extends to the community and as such, the synagogue makes a point to open all its events to non-members, said Ross.
She praised the early congregants for their vision in establishing an in-house caterer, Classical Caterers, and creating “a beautiful space” for on-site celebrations.
Gary Tinkel was one of four original members who spoke at a brunch held about a month before the gala. He said that from the beginning there were members willing to “think outside the box” when it came to fund-raising activities. As the former North Brunswick JCC was being renovated and expanded, there were insufficient funds to complete painting the interior. The solution was to have “painting parties” evenings and on Sundays, where, he said, “virtually all of our members came to paint. It was more like a party than work.”
Later, when the building’s school wing was being completed, the congregation again found itself strapped for cash and held “painting party two,” again enlisting volunteer painters.
“The members of B’nai Tikvah have always been there to support and sustain our synagogue, which is why we have over one-third of our members belonging to the synagogue for 30 years or more,” said Tinkel.
Gala cochair Amanda Uniman is testament to the hold B’nai Tikvah has on members. Her parents, Gale and Marc Dillman, are original congregants. She herself was named in the synagogue and had her bat mitzvah and wedding there.
“B’nai Tikvah is an incredible place,” Uniman said. She and her husband, Harry, also a lifelong member, at one time gave serious consideration to moving, but, she said, “we realized what we had in B’nai Tikvah could not be replicated; it is just unique, so we stayed in North Brunswick.”
Her gala cochair, Melinda Austein and her husband, Chad, are also lifelong members, and, Uniman said, they have two little boys who are now third-generation members.
“This community is just so open and nice… it’s just friendly,” said Uniman. “I think B’nai Tikvah does a great job of having social events, Jewish events, and Jewish social events. For me it’s a community and it’s a community I don’t want to do without.”