During Chanukah, a time when Jews celebrate bringing light into the world, the Jewish community of Middlesex and Monmouth counties was glowing.
In recognition of the accomplishments of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, 184 people gathered on Dec. 13 at Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick for the federation’s annual meeting. It was the first federation program in the newly minted Eva and Arie Halpern Hillel House, which opened its doors in April.
At the event, taking place on the second night of Chanukah, attendees sipped blue “dreidel drop” cocktails, sampled several varieties of latkes and homemade jelly doughnuts, and honored those who enabled care for the vulnerable and aided initiatives to enrich Jewish life.
“During Chanukah we remember Judah Maccabee, a hero who upheld our values and way of life, not just for the Jews of his day, but generations to come,” federation president Jeff Schwartz said, comparing the Jewish hero to those who have supported the federation.
Prior to the start of the meeting, federation hosted a reception for members of the Legacy Circle, those who have committed to support federation in their wills. At the reception Michael Wasserman of Highland Park, chair of the Life & Legacy Committee, was presented with the Seymour St. Lifer Award for his leadership.
Richard Joel, former president and CEO of Hillel International and former president of Yeshiva University, was the evening’s keynote speaker.
In his remarks, Joel said “it was the best of times” for the Jewish community, which is strong in both the United States and Israel, with “more Jewish learning” than ever in the history of the Jewish people.
That said, he noted, there has been a decline in attendance at religious institutions, and assimilation — exactly what the Maccabees fought against — has become a serious problem.
“We know the first words spoken in the Torah are ‘Let there be light,’” Joel said. The reason for this is to emphasize that “God gave us life as humans to take the world from chaos and darkness, create light, and to fashion a world.”
For Sue Kheel, Joel’s presence at the first federation program in Rutgers Hillel was “so exciting.” Kheel, an almost 40-year Hillel board member from Highland Park, said Joel had advised Rutgers Hillel to move from its former site on the Douglass Campus to College Avenue on the main university campus; the Hillel house stayed in that rented location for 17 years until the building was demolished when Rutgers expanded its campus.
“He told us staying at Douglass was a dead-end,” said Kheel. “The accreditation processes we had to go through was difficult, but he worked with us and told us we had to do it if we wanted to make positive change at Hillel.”
Joel said that federation keeps the next generation of Jews engaged, and he encouraged a thriving community “to do Jewish” by building a consortium of committed individuals that make “a thousand flowers bloom.”
Among the many programs, committees, and individuals who helped the community blossom in the last year was the security task force, which was cited for its efforts in securing $1 million dollars in federal Homeland Security grants for the second year in a row. The task force also developed a close working relationship with local law enforcement to implement new security resources and establish best practices for all Jewish institutions. In conjunction with the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights, and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College (CHHANGE), law enforcement officers were brought to a two-day intensive program at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Other federation success stories include: a 28 percent growth in subscriptions to PJ Library, which provides Jewish books and music to children, and 450 subscriptions to the new PJ Our Way for tweens; 35 percent increase in funding for teen trips to Israel; providing scholarships for summer camps — including to special needs youngsters; providing funding for the Tahel Crisis Center for Religious Women and Children in Israel, which supports thousands of children coping with abuse; offering Meals on Wheels to seniors and the homebound; and caring for hundreds of Holocaust survivors through the Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County and Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Monmouth County.