Temple Shalom of Sussex County will celebrate 100 years of Jewish life in northwest New Jersey at services on Dec. 18, the last night of Hanukka.
“We thought it would be appropriate to hold a rededication on Hanukka,” the festival that commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, said longtime member Lori Cohen of Kinnelon. The Franklin congregation will hold another celebration in the spring.
“It’s not that often a synagogue turns 100 in a building that is 186 years old,” said president Lary Wasserman of Jefferson. “If Abe Lincoln had had a bar mitzva, it could have been held in our building — although it would have been a church at the time,” he quipped.
“A rededication of the synagogue is reclaiming it from one generation to another,” said Rabbi Gerald Catano, who will celebrate 20 years with the congregation in 2010. “We’re looking forward to renewing our connection to Temple Shalom, to stirring the faith, and renewing the vitality of our community.”
Members said they are looking forward to celebrating the milestone of the synagogue they have grown to love, and to talk about ways to attract more members and weather the tough economy.
Jane Annunziata of Vernon felt an immediate connection with the rabbi when they first met 15 years ago — and then fell in love with the congregation.
“This is a small, intimate community,” she said. “The families all know each other, and the rabbi knows all the families. We have very strong connections. To me, that’s what religion is all about.” She said she loves how different Temple Shalom is from the “large building” and “large congregation” she grew up with.
Cohen, who has been a member for 25 years, said she feels “a very strong connection” with the congregation. Even though she lives in Kinnelon — almost 18 miles away — she said she wouldn’t consider any other synagogue.
At the Dec. 18 service, Catano will offer a special sermon, and Ed Mindlin will speak about the history of the congregation (see sidebar).
“I’m so proud,” Mindlin said in a phone interview. “At one time, only 10 or 15 years ago, my wife and I were the only Jews left in Franklin. To see the synagogue grow and the young kids there — I’m thrilled it’s still going. There’s still a future here.”
Still, congregants worry that that future is not assured. While the small Jewish community in Sussex County is slowly growing, membership in the synagogue has dropped from 100 families five years ago to 70 today; enrollment in the religious school is down to 27 children, from 60 five years ago.
In 2005, the congregation undertook a $350,000 capital campaign to build a religious school building that would replace the trailers now in use outside the synagogue. That campaign is now on hold.
“The synagogue is suffering,” acknowledged religious school director Rachel Niedzwiecki. “We’re hoping for more members as the Jewish community here in Sussex County grows. We’re trying to reconnect with the community to let people know we’re here. A lot of people want to join, but they can’t pay the dues. We’re fighting against the clock.”
Niedzwiecki and the teachers, who were never paid much, now work for free (they are all congregants).
Cohen said she worries the problems go beyond the economy.
“More families are leaving than coming,” said Cohen. “Is it intermarriage, people just not joining? The location of the temple? A lot of interfaith families are deciding to go Christian. And a lot of families do nothing.”
Temple Shalom is one of four centers of Jewish life in the county; the others are a Conservative synagogue in Newton, a Chabad outpost in Sparta, and a small synagogue in Hopatcong. Temple Shalom, the most liberal option, sees its future in embracing the unaffiliated and interfaith families in the county.
Still, Cohen said, she is concerned about the rise of “consumer” Jews — people who drop their kids at religious school and leave when they are finished with their b’nei mitzva.
“When people used to join, they’d really join, and volunteer, and get into the temple,” said Cohen. “Now they drop off their kids, but they have no real connection. People used to come on Friday night; now there are very few people,” she said.
Others are more optimistic. Wasserman acknowledged that the congregation “came close” to having to close. Now, he said, “I think we’ve turned the corner.”
“The fact that we are small and were fiscally responsible for so many years has allowed us to keep operating,” said Annunziata, who has sat on the board for the last 10 years. “I’m not worried about our future.”
The congregation has hired a new part-time rabbi to work with Catano, and Wasserman said he thinks Rabbi Josh Cantor will help the congregation attract more new members. A retired businessman, Cantor is not newly minted, but he is younger than Catano. “He’s a little more up-to-date in outlook and more in the middle in terms of tradition. He’s going to change some things, from prayers to making services more child friendly. He presents a more flexible view of Judaism,” said Wasserman.
Catano declined to share in any anxiety about the future. “Worrying is not a healthy dimension,” he said. “We have to do our best and have faith and plant seeds. The future is built on what we do in the present.”
Mindlin said, “Times are tough. I hope things straighten out. I think they’ll hang in.”
He added that he hopes they do. “I plan to stay a little longer,” he said.