How a rabbinic search helped East Brunswick Jewish Center find its own path
The search for a new religious leader not only led the East Brunswick Jewish Center (EBJC) to Rabbi Jeff Pivo, but also to a new way for the Conservative synagogue to define itself and kick off a year of discovery.
“We are on a path of exploration,” said synagogue co-president Deena Oren. “People are very happy with the services so far and excited for the future. There is a lot of good stuff going on.”
The synagogue, which has remained largely traditional in its religious observance even as the majority of Conservative synagogues nationally over the last several decades have gone fully egalitarian — allowing women to be counted in a minyan, lead prayers, and read Torah — will also be evaluating its options on that front.
“We are pluralistic and this doesn’t mean we are going to go egalitarian,” said Oren. “But when I took this position I thought it was important to start the conversation.”
For Pivo, who succeeded Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein on Aug. 1, the possibility of integrating women further into its religious life is an exciting prospect.
“East Brunswick Jewish Center is really interesting to me because of the journey it is on to become a pluralistic Conservative synagogue,” said Pivo in a phone interview with NJJN. “For me the really exciting part is being part of a new chapter in this synagogue’s history and to help guide them in that process.”
According to the public relations department at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), EBJC is one of only three Conservative synagogues in the state that isn’t fully egalitarian; the others are Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn and Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards of USCJ passed a takkanah, or enactment, allowing women full participation in a minyan. In the ensuing years, the movement made additional efforts to equalize the status of women, culminating in the 1983 vote by the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to admit women to study for the rabbinate.
Pivo said he expects to spend a lot of time talking and studying with members over the next year to determine “how best to serve the Jews of our area and meet as many different needs as we can. We’re committed to maintaining our traditional non-egalitarian minyan and exploring ways of expanding our egalitarian offerings.”
The push to go egalitarian at EBJC has come in small spurts over the last eight years, earning the synagogue a reputation as “Conservadox,” a moniker indicating observance that falls somewhere between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, said rabbinic search committee chair Marilyn Friedes.
EBJC hosted its first egalitarian High Holy Day service last year and now holds a monthly egalitarian Shabbat morning service in its beit midrash at the same time as the larger service that takes place in the sanctuary. Morning and evening services are traditional, and shiva minyanim can be egalitarian or traditional, depending on the family’s preference.
To describe the various religious practices and observances of the congregation, Friedes said members were sent a 10-question survey with such queries as whether they would like to rotate between weekly traditional and egalitarian services.
“The responses were delightful to read,” said Friedes. “They wanted more singing and more explanation, but at the same time they wanted a shorter service. Our services begin at 9:30 and don’t end until about 12:30.”
The committee, she added, was pleased at the “extraordinary” number of responses — 372, with most of the responders willing to sign their names — and surprised to find that, in fact, most of the congregants no longer consider themselves Conservadox.
“The term we are now using to define ourselves is pluralistic,” said Friedes. “We learned although we had a wide variety of observance in the congregation, we respected one another. Although we still have many traditional members, we found we have a significant core that is egalitarian.”
Former sisterhood president Janice Saferstein said she applauded efforts to increase the participation of women in synagogue religious life, as well as the push to entice younger families to become part of the EBJC family.
Saferstein is part of the membership team on the board of the Garden State Region of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism. She said she recently attended the league’s convention in Virginia and was impressed with the knowledge displayed by female religious leaders from JTS and the other women in attendance.
“You should have seen all the ruach [spirit] at all the programs that I attended,” she said. “The women who led services were so very talented and capable.”
Oren, however, said she is “conflicted” over the egalitarian issue.
“While I myself am an egalitarian leader and do everything in the egalitarian service including reading Torah and leading services, on the other hand it’s important to understand the values of others who want to maintain a traditional service.”
From her research she found that traditionalists tend come to services more frequently, a trend that she said was consistent with a number of Conservative shuls. Oren said fully egalitarian synagogues often only offered one minyan a day rather than two like EBJC, and she did not want to reduce service offerings if certain regulars would feel uncomfortable with egalitarian prayer.
“We’re still struggling with our terminology,” said Oren. “We want the service itself to remain traditional. We don’t want to substitute more English for the Hebrew. We don’t want to make our Torah reading shorter.”
The synagogue could institute a plan similar to HPCT-CAE, which has both an egalitarian and traditional service weekly, alternating between the main sanctuary and beit midrash, a system that has “worked beautifully for us,” said its executive director Linda Tondow. Bar and bat mitzvah celebrants can choose the service they prefer, and evening minyanim are egalitarian.
The congregation’s egalitarian “Moreshet” service was established more than a decade ago, said Tondow. The congregation separates for the Torah service and Musaf (the rabbi and cantor always “stay with the Torah” in the main sanctuary), and reunites in the main sanctuary for the rabbi’s sermon and later Kiddush.
Pivo will guide the congregation through several initiatives. Among them, Oren said, are “creating avenues” for different groups of varying interests and ages to get involved in synagogue life and find common ground with each other; increasing adult education offerings; holding more cultural events; and forming more collaborations and partnerships with different synagogues and Jewish organizations.
With volunteerism on the rise, the 415-family synagogue is “redirecting” its focus under its new leadership, said its other co-president, Eric Pelofsky, and it has already seen membership rise and an increase in service attendance. A fundraiser held earlier this month “sold out” at 50 people and raised a significant amount of money.
“EBJC is the place to be,” said Pelofsky. “There hasn’t been this much energy here in generations.”
Pivo, a native of Orange County outside Los Angeles, met his wife, Lisa, also a southern California native, when both were students at UCLA. The rabbi studied for a year at the University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University, in Los Angeles before transferring to JTS in New York.
He taught for a year at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford before becoming rabbi for two years at Temple Hatikvah in Flanders and then serving for eight years at Congregation Beth El in Yardley, Pa. He came to EBJC after serving for six years at Congregation Beth Judea in the Chicago suburb of Long Grove.
“My whole family is very excited about the prospect of coming back to this area,” said Pivo.
The couple has three children: Celia, 19, a Dartmouth College student; Max, 17, who is spending the year with a friend while finishing his senior year at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield, Ill.; and Zachary, 15, who will be attending an as-yet-undetermined area Jewish day school.
At EBJC, Pivo said he hopes to expand adult education and social offerings. He helped start an adult Purim masquerade at his previous synagogue, and worked with congregants to establish a large endowment to ensure the shul’s future financial stability.
“I’m looking forward to exploring similar endeavors at EBJC, and new ones as well,” said Pivo, who is eager to investigate the area’s culture, museums, and kosher restaurants with his family. An avid collector of record albums (“pop, rock, soul, punk; I like everything”), Pivo said he is particularly excited that a return to the area means he can indulge his hobby by being near “my favorite store in the whole wide world, the Princeton Record Exchange.”