Congregation Ahavas Achim in Highland Park marked the completion of its $1.5 million renovation and expansion with Torah learning, song, dance, and good food.
The hanukat habayit program over the Dec. 24-25 weekend celebrated the dedication of the Imre and Rachel Lefkovits Synagogue at the Orthodox shul.
The project, in the planning stages for about 10 years, created a 450-seat main sanctuary, as well as an expanded lobby, renovated women’s and men’s restrooms — including a handicapped-accessible restroom — a breast-feeding room, kiddush room, four new classrooms, landscaping, and a permanent wooden trellis that can be opened out to make a sukka.
The weekend’s celebrations were leavened, however, with sadness that Imre did not live to see the project’s completion; he died last year.
“Everyone was on such a spiritual and emotional high,” said event chair Lisa Goldberg; despite that tinge of sorrow, “Rachel was there surrounded by her beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
The Highland Park couple, both Holocaust survivors, provided the leading gift for the 7,000-square-foot project as part of their vision of helping to rebuild the Jewish life they watched destroyed in the Shoa.
“This means the world to us,” Rachel told NJJN during the August 2009 ground-breaking ceremony. “We are excited to build this beis midrash because of what [the Nazis] destroyed.”
Rachel, a native of Czechoslovakia, came to the United States in 1947; Imre was from Hungary and arrived in 1949. She noted that the couple had been blessed with family and financial means in the postwar years.
“We now have our children and grandchildren, and it is important to us that they have this and they go in the right direction,” said Rachel at the ground breaking. “We hope this will give the community a lot of education and enjoyment.”
About 400 people from throughout the Highland Park and Edison Jewish communities attended the dedication. Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Dist. 17) was also at the event, which featured short talks by eight rabbis of the Vaad HaRabbonim of Raritan Valley.
The dedication “was very meaningful and very spiritual,” said Goldberg. “To have eight local rabbis in one house of worship was really great. In most communities the rabbis fight each other for members, but not in Highland Park and Edison.”
“We were thrilled and overwhelmed by the community participation…,” said Ahavas Achim’s Rabbi Steven Miodownik, adding that he was delighted that “not only people from this shul but also many of our neighbors and friends who don’t attend this shul still value us as a community Jewish institution and understand what supporting a neighbor is all about.”
Guest Cantor Eric Freeman of Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish Music participated during Friday night and Saturday morning services and at the evening dedication services.
The highlight for event cochair Milt Erdfarb came at the end of Shabbat morning services.
“All the children from our youth groups came down and helped lead our service,” he recalled. “There was not enough room on the bima. It was a beautiful occasion for all the community to come together to celebrate this experience.”