Temple B’nai Or in Morristown celebrated its 60th anniversary with a parade that began exactly where the community began in 1954 — at the Church of the Redeemer.
On Sept. 21, a warm, overcast Sunday morning, congregants gathered on the steps of the Morristown Episcopalian church with three Torah scrolls for a community celebration that was not limited to congregants.
The Rev. Cynthia Black, rector of the church, addressed the crowd with a message of community and unity, wearing a Temple B’nai Or T-shirt over her clerical garb. She joined B’nai Or’s Rabbi Donald Rossoff as he blew the shofar just days before Rosh Hashana.
Deenie and Sid Schlosser, who were in the crowd that Sunday, remembered worshiping in the parish hall as guests of the church during the first two years of the temple’s existence. Back then, they were joined by their parents and siblings; this time around, they were joined by children and grandchildren.
Deenie recalled that a group of 11 Morristown families originally got together in June 1954 and contacted the Reform movement. Its representative met with them and eventually provided student rabbi Hillel Gamoran.
“We were excited,” said Deenie. “The High Holy Days were coming and we wanted to be able to enjoy services as families.
“We were very organized, and by the High Holy Days, we had pretty much swelled to 40 or 50 families.” She recalled the church as being “very welcoming. We felt very much at home there.”
From the start, she said, music was an important part of the community. “We brought in a paid choir right from the beginning.”
Family was also defining. Multiple generations of families were among the founders, and their children continue to return. The Schlossers’ son Bill and his wife, Stacey, are active: He is president of the men’s club, and she runs the Judaica shop. The current president, Keith Barbarosh and his wife, Lisa, are both second-generation members.
Todd Gutlein of Morristown, a member for just three years, said one of the things he likes most about B’nai Or is “the family-ness” (and the softball team).
B’nai Or also touts its civic engagement. That took root early — not only with the Church of the Redeemer, but also with the town’s leaders. After several years at the church, the group bought land for its own building on South Street from Morristown’s former mayor, W. Parsons Todd. “He wouldn’t let us buy it,” said Deenie Schlosser. “Instead, he gave us the land.
“We went back two times more for additional land. The third time we went back he said, ‘You’d better ask for as much as you want because I may not be here next time.’” The original building was erected in 1958.
Later, when the congregation moved to its current location on Overlook Road, it was the Catholic diocese that granted a dispensation that enabled the group to purchase its land, according to Deenie.
The membership has more than doubled since then. Michael Israel of Morristown, who was president when B’nai Or moved to Overlook Road in 1971, estimated the congregation to be 200-250 families at that time. Today it is more than 500. But even at that size, it has retained its intimate quality. Members visited with Israel and his wife, Zelda (who passed away many years ago), when they moved to the area to convince them to join. Friday nights had their own rhythm that included what Israel called a “supplemental oneg.” As he explained, “It would be very unusual if after the oneg following services you were not invited to someone’s home for a supplemental oneg.”
Keith Barbarosh not only grew up at the temple, he also met his wife in the religious school. His family joined B’nai Or in 1970, when he was seven. “I was a rabble-rouser — always in the principal’s office,” he said. “But that’s because the director used to give us pizza, and we’d have a pizza party. We started competing to see who’d be the first one thrown out of class!”
On a more serious note, he pointed out that over the years, the synagogue has evolved with the times. During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the community was led by Rabbi Z. David Levy, who took the helm in 1962 after two years of Rabbi David Baylinson’s leadership. Levy “played guitar and had a talk-show personality,” said Barbarosh. “We focused on refuseniks, Israel, and social action.” Rossoff, who has served as religious leader since 1990, has continued the focus on social action and diversity in Morristown. However, said Barbarosh, “as the 1990s and 2000s have been more conservative, Rabbi Rossoff has been more traditional and less political. It’s a Jewish interpretation of our times.”
Looking forward, Barbarosh said he is “excited” about the current rabbinic search for a successor to Rossoff, who will retire at the end of the year.
“We are well situated to grow and help shape the fabric of Morristown into a welcoming, spiritual, and friendly place where all faiths can share the spirit of community,” Barbarosh said. “It’s a great time for our temple and I’m excited about the future.”