The longtime rabbi at Congregation Beth-El in Edison is to be succeeded by a lay “spiritual leader” as the synagogue seeks to “keep the Conservative movement going” in an area with a shrinking non-Orthodox population.
Harvey Speizer has taken over for Rabbi Dr. Bernhard Rosenberg, who left last month after 26 years as religious leader. Rosenberg is now director of the Palestinian Authority Anti-Semitism Study Project for the Jerusalem-based Center for Near East Policy Research.
Speizer, who will continue to work in his job as a warehouse manager for a food corporation, will lead services on Shabbat evening and morning and holidays, conduct funerals, and be available to congregants with problems and concerns. Lacking ordination, he can’t officiate at weddings.
“I am young, energetic, and looking to bring in new programs to bring in the younger generation,” said Speizer, 52, a Highland Park resident, in a phone interview with NJJN. “I’m incorporating youth services where young people will lead the service and will be able to have input. I expect to build up this synagogue so it will hopefully grow.”
Speizer also plans to incorporate other congregants into the service through English readings as well as other participatory functions, hold congregational holiday meals, and serve a hot kiddush after Saturday Shabbat services.
He studied at the Neveh Zion Yeshiva outside Jerusalem and formerly served for eight years in a similar position at Congregation B’nai Ahavath Shalom in Union, before it closed last year. Speizer was its Torah reader and gave sermons there.
Beth-El’s president, Scott Raiman, acknowledged that the congregation has shrunk as non-Orthodox Jews have left the area. Founded in 1952, the shul now stands at just 25 family units, with another 25 single or associate members. It is not affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational body.
The congregation also took a financial hit when Yeshivat Netivot Montessori, which had been renting space in the synagogue for 14 years, moved into larger quarters at the East Brunswick Jewish Center.
Beth-El no longer has a Hebrew school; a bat mitzva celebrated shortly before Rosenberg left was the last of the current membership.
Raiman said the decision to not hire a rabbi to succeed Rosenberg was economic. “We can’t afford one,” he said.
He also praised Rosenberg, who served the wider community in various chaplaincy roles and was a vocal figure in local civic affairs.
“I couldn’t have done my job without Rabbi Rosenberg,” said Raisman. “Every time we had a problem with Edison, he was right there to call the mayor. He taught us and others in town to coexist with each other. We were sorry to see him go. He was a friend to all our congregants.”
Raiman said Speizer brings with him “high energy” and ideas for holiday celebrations that hopefully will infuse the congregation with new life.
“We have a sturdy group who really want to keep going. We want to keep the Conservative movement going in our part of Edison,” Raiman said. “We don’t turn anybody away because they can’t afford it. We make provisions for them. We are welcoming to intermarrieds. We accommodate all types of people.”
Raiman said the congregation first formed a relationship with Speizer about 15 years ago as competitors in the synagogue softball league, when Speizer played for a Chabad team. During a championship run, both teams were running out of players and decided to merge their talents into one team.
“In 2001 we won the championship,” Raiman said. “Harvey won us a championship in softball back then, and now he’ll help us win a championship in Conservative Judaism.”
Speizer grew up in Irvington attending Ahavat Achim Bikur Cholim, where he was mentored by the Orthodox synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Leon Yagod, and attended the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth. He graduated from Rutgers University, where he majored in Hebraic studies and economics.
He has been married for 25 years to his wife, Sue, an assistant teacher at the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore preschool at Young Israel of East Brunswick. The couple has two daughters, Felicia, 21, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Esti, 17, a junior at JEC’s Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth.