For its Simchat Torah program this year, held Sunday, Sept. 30, a couple days before the actual holiday, the Reform Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon (JCK) met at Morse Lake in Bloomingdale, where in addition to completing and restarting the reading of the Torah, members participated in an etrog taste test.
“It was bitter, but we smiled through it,” said education director Juliet Barr.
She could as easily have been describing the recent move of the community out of the building they have been sharing with Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes since 2012. In that unusual arrangement, members of JCK bought shares in the building; except for a Hebrew school, the two congregations remained separate, with each providing its own worship experiences and programs. But the arrangement was no longer working.
“We could not afford to live in that building,” said Barr. “Both congregations were too small.”
JCK moved its administration and educational functions to an office in a warehouse space in nearby Butler. Services are being held monthly, chavurah-style, in people’s homes. Barr calls them “pop-up Shabbat services.”
Moving away from their home base in Kinnelon cost them some members, according to executive board member Ilene Cohn. Moreover, the chemistry and culture of the two organizations didn’t mix as well as members had hoped, she said. “Over time we realized the congregations’ personalities were so different.”
JCK had hoped that having a building would attract members, but as part of the arrangement they had agreed to meet the level of kashrut of Beth Shalom, which was stricter than their own. They realized — too late — that much of their culture revolved around potluck-type gatherings that involved preparing and bringing in food from outside. For instance, they had to hold their annual “latka-rama” for Chanukah at the nearby firehouse. They also found that their most well-attended services were held in spaces outside of the synagogue.
In the end, both congregations were losing members, Cohn said. “We realized a split was necessary.”
Beth Shalom closed its doors altogether. The synagogues sold their building in September, and it is now home to the Almustafa Center, an Islamic masjid and community center. Proceeds were divided between the congregations based on their share of ownership. (JCK’s share was well under 10 percent.)
At its peak, JCK had more than 50 member families. It still has 30 member families and eight children in its religious school (at the time of the split Beth Shalom had just one student in the Hebrew School; that child now attends a different school). Students come on Wednesdays or Sundays every other week for Hebrew instruction, and there are monthly programs for all congregants, which Barr describes as “experiential, meaningful, filled with Judaic content, and multi-generational.” The October meeting will focus on establishing the community’s new identity; November’s will be a mitzvah day; and December’s will include a Chanukah celebration. Outings and trips are being planned.
High Holy Day services this year were held at Our Lady of the Magnificat, a Catholic church in Kinnelon. For some members, the location recalled the congregation’s earlier days. Almost since its founding in Kinnelon in 1988, until moving to Pompton Lakes in 2012, JCK was a tenant of Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Kinnelon. Even in those years, it held High Holy Day services at Our Lady of the Magnificat (because JCK required extra space — and air conditioning).
Once Beth Shalom and JCK were sharing the location in Pompton Lakes, the two congregations offered joint services for the first few years, but the Conservative style of worship didn’t suit the needs of the JCK community. It briefly held an early service before Beth Shalom’s, but ultimately returned to its practice of holding High Holy Day services at Our Lady of the Magnificat.
“The move is just a physical location,” said Lucy Lazoff of Wayne, who, along with her husband and 11-year-old son, Jason, has been affiliated with JCK for four years. “It’s not a factor for us.” She said that she and her husband chose the community after visiting several congregations because the group made them feel welcome, and as far as Lazoff is concerned, that hasn’t changed. What’s more, Jason has a positive relationship with the educational director. “He loves Juliet,” she said. “That’s what’s important.”
In August JCK’s rabbi, Josh Leighton, moved to Kansas with his family. He returned to lead High Holy Day services, but moving forward Barr will be the only Jewish professional, and at this time there are no plans to hire a rabbi. Cohn said they would consider using rabbinical students from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for specific events.
“The sad part is, we thought the building was going to be something it wasn’t,” said Cohn. “We thought if we had a real building we could get more members, but it wasn’t true.” Their appeal, they realized, is to an often-unaffiliated crowd seeking something informal, experiential, and less structured than what an actual sanctuary offers.
“Now,” Cohn said, “I’m happy we can function in a manner that creates success for who we are.”