When Rabbi Joshua Hess was offered the chance to lead Congregation Anshe Chesed, the Modern Orthodox synagogue in Linden, it was an opportunity he couldn’t resist.
“I saw a community that was beginning to have a rebirth,” he said. “It has such exciting opportunity for me, to be part of that growth and transformation. And what’s really special is that the older congregants recognize the importance of attracting young people. They’re the ones who have pushed for this.”
The rabbi and his wife, Naava, moved to Linden from Denver, Colo., two months ago, with their four small children. It was their third move since marrying seven years ago, but worth the effort, he told NJ Jewish News.
Hess served for the past three years at DAT Minyan, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Denver. The rabbi, a Los Angeles native and the eldest of seven sons, obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in talmudic law and his rabbinical ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Md., in 2006. While in Denver, he studied for his master’s in pastoral counseling at Iliff, a Christian theological school, where he was the first rabbi — and one of the very few Jewish students — they ever had enroll. He relished the whole experience, and the chance — for the first time — to study with non-Jews.
Anshe Chesed, which celebrated its 95th anniversary this summer, is one of the oldest Orthodox congregations in central New Jersey. In the past few decades its numbers have dropped — from 289 families at its peak to 130 now.
But the shul seems to have turned a corner. The congregants decided about eight years ago to make a concerted effort to attract young couples. They began holding special Shabbatons for singles, inviting young couples to spend Shabbat with local families, and offering financial assistance to those wanting to move to the area.
They have succeeded where many others have failed. Hess said 18 couples have joined in the past five years, and four in just the past four months. And to their delight, there have been nine babies — all boys — born in the congregation in the past year.
“We offer a really serious option for young Orthodox families,” the 28-year-old rabbi said. “It’s a great location — close to train and bus and the highway, with affordable housing, and proximity to the Jewish schools,” he said, sounding like a longtime booster despite his own recent arrival.
‘Warm and welcoming’
He clearly had no concern about bringing his own young family to a predominantly older community. “There are always plenty of little kids running around in the shul,” he said.
The rabbi’s wife, a teacher, leaves for work at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston at around 7 a.m., taking their toddler, Dalia, with her to the daycare center at the school. The older three Hesses, Akiva, Dani, and Esti, go with their father to early morning minyan. Then he brings them home for breakfast, and takes all three to school in Elizabeth — at the Jewish Educational Center, 10 minutes away.
Hess said he and his wife are delighted with the school, and he has thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the head of the JEC, Rabbi Elazar Teitz.
Hess also has another, even closer rabbinical contact — with Rabbi Gershon Newman, whose yeshiva occupies part of Anshe Chesed’s 30,000-square-foot building.
“In Colorado, you’re kind of on an island,” he said. There aren’t a whole lot of Jews in the surrounding states. “Here, you are part of a much larger Jewish community. We’re just 40 minutes from Monsey, NY, and Lakewood, and 20 to Manhattan.”
They have access to mikva’ot, ritual baths, in Elizabeth and Hillside, but Hess is hoping to build one at Anshe Chesed — to add yet another plus to attract Orthodox families. “That’s of the utmost importance,” he said.
His comfort in the setting is clear. “The congregation has been incredibly welcoming and warm,” he said. “I foresee us being here for a long time.”