When Simon and Lina Garber came to New Jersey as young immigrants from Odessa, Ukraine, in the late 1970s, they had little money or knowledge of Judaism.
However, they were taken under the wing of Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky and his wife, Shterney, who ran synagogues and schools for Russian immigrants. It was at their Rogossin Yeshiva High School in Jersey City that the couple met. Later they attended his Bris Avrohom synagogue in Hillside.
“Rabbi Kanelsky took nothing, but always said when you grow up and have a little money you can give something back,” recalled Lina.
Two years ago the Colts Neck couple did just that, providing much of the funding to purchase the building for the Center for Jewish Life in Marlboro, directed by Kanelsky’s son, Rabbi Yossi Kanelsky.
On Jan. 27, the couple was honored at a dinner dedicating the center in honor of their parents, Izya and Bella Kravchik of Monroe and Vladimir and Zhanna Garber of New York and Florida. They also presented the center with a 10-foot Tree of Life mural by artist Domingo Zapata.
The dinner, which featured Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno as keynote speaker, drew 350 people.
“Simon and Lina have maintained a relationship with my parents and our family for over 30 years,” said Yossi Kanelsky. “They have been involved since 2004 when we were in Old Bridge. We have a family relationship.”
The CJL, which serves Jews from the former Soviet Union, runs a religious school and holds classes on Torah and Kabala. Offerings include a weekly teen group, Shabbat and holiday services and programming, and bar and bat mitzva lessons.
It has 162 partner families. Its 18,000-square-foot building, sitting on 3.5 acres, has 17 classrooms, offices, a library, a chapel, and a 5,200-square-foot ballroom.
“People really feel at home here,” said Kanelsky. “These are people who don’t belong to any shul and perhaps a small minority who went to shul once a year. Now they come here every week. We have men putting on tallit and tefillin and women lighting Shabbos candles every week.”
The center also plans to open a Jewish day camp in Monmouth County this summer.
Simon is an entrepreneur who owns a fleet of taxis operating in nine U.S. cities. Lina said the couple feel strongly about giving back so other Jews from the former Soviet Union can connect to Judaism.
“If my husband and I can get two more people, that would be great because they will then go and get two more people,” she told NJJN. “We realize we didn’t get where we are by accident. A lot of people gave of their time, money, and effort. We wanted to do the same.”
She said she also wanted to set an example for their children, who, she said, “are very privileged. They were born in America and we want to show them that helping others is more important than a bigger car or an extra apartment. We didn’t come here with money or privilege. We lived in a ghetto and had one chicken to share all week. But, we worked hard, and now is our opportunity to give back.”
Toby Shylit Mack, chair of the Community Relations Committee of Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, said she was “deeply moved and humbled” by the Garbers’ story.
“As an immigrant myself I am keenly aware of the challenges my family faced after the Holocaust,” she said. “Simon and Lina Garber never deviated from their strong Jewish heritage…. They are examples of what it means to build a Jewish community.”