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One building, two rabbis, alternating services
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One building, two rabbis, alternating services

In unusual agreement, Reform, Conservative shuls to share space

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In an extraordinary interdenominational partnership, the Reform Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon has purchased space within the Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes.

And, in perhaps the most unusual aspect of the move, the two congregations will share one space for Shabbat and holiday services. Friday night services will alternate from week to week in terms of denomination, with the occasional joint service.

The move is decidedly not a merger: JCK owns a percentage of the building, according to Beth Shalom president Larry Tornow, a share that is expected to rise each year.

The religious school is the only entity that will be merged, aside from a joint building committee that will have jurisdiction over issues pertaining to building priorities, maintenance, and repair.

Otherwise, both congregations will remain independent entities and retain their respective denominational affiliations as well as their own rabbis.

“When it’s their service, it will follow URJ rules. When it’s our service, we will follow USCJ rules,” Tornow said, referring to the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur will be very interesting. We’re going to have a joint service. It’s going to be URJ until the Torah is brought out, and then it will be a USCJ service.”

Tornow welcomed the JCK arrangement as “win-win.”

“We enlarge our Hebrew school, and they get a building,” he said in a telephone conversation.

The partnership took effect Aug. 17, and a Sept. 7 kabalat Shabbat ceremony symbolically sealed the deal, when JCK brought its two Torahs and placed them in the ark of the Beth Shalom sanctuary.

“We wanted everyone to have a hand in getting our Torahs into the ark,” said JCK vice president David Hellman. Among the last to place the Torah in the ark was JCK founding member Ed Weisselberg.

“From its inception, JCK has had the vision, the dream, the goal of having a space to call its own. This is the realization of that dream,” said JCK’s Rabbi Joshua Leighton.

Tornow acknowledged that “changing demographics” had caused the shrinking of the Beth Shalom membership from a high several decades ago of about 250 families to today’s 75 families.

“We have a big building. It was good for the congregation at its height, but many people have moved out of the community, and there’s not many Jewish people living in Pompton Lakes anymore,” said Beth Shalom’s Rabbi David Bockman. “The congregation is smaller and older, but we wanted to keep Judaism alive and well in this area for the people who live here.”

Beth Shalom, founded in 1935, once had a thriving religious school. But this year, with a dearth of new young families, enrollment was down to five children.

JCK had been a tenant in Saint David’s Episcopal Church in Kinnelon almost since its founding in 1988. It brings with it 50 families and 30 children in the religious school.

Despite having moved from Kinnelon, a community within the purview of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, JCK will neither change its name nor shift its affiliation to the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, whose territory includes Pompton Lakes.

“We really are looking at this move as an extension of our services to this area. We will still serve Kinnelon and continue to have programs in the area,” said Hellman.

He said that while the community would have preferred to remain in Kinnelon, Beth Shalom offered a cost-effective building and the opportunity to gain a critical mass of people for various functions.

“It’s an ongoing experiment,” said Tornow of the complicated dance of two congregations sharing one space and alternating services.

Bockman noted out that in some ways, he and Leighton are not so far apart in ideology. “We both want people to feel comfortable here, and we want to give the gift of Judaism to whoever wants it. We’re not so exclusivist,” said Bockman.

Leighton believes both groups will benefit.

“It’s a learning opportunity for both congregations, to be exposed to and test their preconceived notions of the other,” he said. “It will be interesting for everyone to see the differences, and more so, to recognize the commonalities. Outside of the denominational differences, we see this as a one-stop shop for Jewish religious, social, and cultural programs.”

Leighton acknowledged the challenges in navigating differences in observance and finding common ground for communal events. The kosher kitchen is already a new experience for JCK members.

“They are learning how to maintain kashrut and find hechshers,” said Leighton, referring to the insignia of kosher supervisors.

Bockman added, “Why was the Torah given to all 600,000 Jewish families on Mount Sinai? Because no one person could get the whole revelation. Everyone’s got a piece and we need all of us together.”

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