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Perth Amboy rabbi aims for the fences
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Perth Amboy rabbi aims for the fences

If Perth Amboy’s Congregation Beth Mordecai were a baseball team, it would be down one run with a runner on base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

“Everyone would want to be that next batter who could hit that homerun to win the game for the team,” said vice president Norman Silverstein.

Earlier this year, the congregation was considering leaving the city it had called home for 115 years.

Now, with the hiring of a new rabbi, Ari Saks, Silverstein said they hope to have found the “game-changer” who can bring renewed life to Beth Mordecai.

“We feel he is up to the challenge,” said Silverstein, who also chaired the rabbinic search committee. “We are at a critical stage in our history, and we feel he is the one who can hit that homerun and lead us to victory. We are now no longer talking about a merger.”

Saks, a recent graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, took over July 1 for Rabbi Melinda Zalma, who left the congregation after six years.

Silverstein said the entire committee was impressed by Saks’s charisma and his ideas for drawing young families into the aging 100-family congregation, located in a city whose once thriving Jewish community left decades ago for the suburbs leaving Beth Mordecai as the lone remaining shul. Many of its members do not live in Perth Amboy.

The rabbi and his wife, Rachel, a nutritionist with her own consulting business, moved just blocks away from the synagogue. Silverstein said congregants have also been impressed at how active she has become in congregation activities.

The couple met at Camp Ramah in the Poconos in 2000, married in 2006, and spent seven weeks in Vietnam and Thailand for their honeymoon.

The 30-year-old Saks told NJJN he is planning on starting a religious school and bar and bat mitzva program, despite the dearth of young families.

“I want to give our children the best opportunity to remain Jewish in the future,” said Saks. “The best way to do that is to give children an experiential Jewish experience.”

Saks said being at a small congregation looking to redefine itself was “in many ways like a start-up, where you can engineer and rethink about what Judaism can look like in the 21st century.”

“You have a lot of flexibility,” he explained. “This congregation also has a proud history from which to build a strong foundation. This really speaks to my love of Conservative Judaism, which is the balance between tradition and change.”

Generational ties

Saks, who grew up in Philadelphia, is a self-described sports fanatic who has already put up Eagles and Phillies banners in his office. He comes from a family of Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, including his father, grandfather, and three uncles. His father now has a pulpit in Toledo, Ohio, and his grandfather, Alexander Shapiro, served for many years at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.

Saks earned his college degree through the joint program of Columbia University and JTS, majoring in Bible and Middle Eastern and Asian languages, and has a working knowledge of Arabic. He lived in New York for the last decade, where he also worked as a paralegal at a Manhattan law firm.

The religious school would fit in with his overall vision of the synagogue as a place “where the generations are linked to each other” with Saks being the Jewish consultant making the generational connection.

“I would go to each family and wherever they are on their Jewish journey, I would help them along in that process,” he said, “even if that means educating both kids and parents to bring them into a general conversation with the rest of the community.”

He said he plans to offer programming outside the synagogue, in public spaces like bookstores and cafes. He also plans to tap into the high-tech interests and skills of youngsters, to connect with new ways to experience Judaism.

“That is the key message of Judaism in the 21st century, where our attention is diverted in so many directions,” explained Saks. “It is the tie to the generations.”

The rabbi said the shul is actively recruiting young families through ads and other enticements, such as free High Holy Day tickets.

“Everything would be related to the growth of the family structure and how Judaism would be the glue to that relationship.”

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