Shuls cross movements to merge Hebrew schools

Shuls cross movements to merge Hebrew schools

Several months after successfully merging their Hebrew schools, a Conservative synagogue in Old Bridge and a Reform congregation in Monroe Township are sharing holiday services and celebrations.

With a dwindling membership, as Jews have left Old Bridge in recent decades, Conservative Congregation Beth Ohr approached the Reform Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center, the next closest synagogue, last summer about sending its six religious school-age children to its educational program.

“We had a meeting of our school boards to discuss curriculum before this all began,” said Etz Chaim’s Rabbi Benjamin Levy. “A couple of members of their school board are now on our religious school committee. I can tell you that three of Beth Ohr’s seventh-graders are in my sixth- and seventh-grade class, and they are wonderful kids. The result of this is that both our congregations have become really close.”

Beth Ohr education committee cochair Lisa Clark said the idea of a merger came about after another synagogue approached hers with a school merger proposal.

“That synagogue was some distance away, and many of our students live in Old Bridge and East Brunswick,” she said. “I was speaking to someone and said, ‘That synagogue is too far away, but maybe we should look at other shuls?’”

The committee broached the idea with synagogue president David Honig, and he reached out to Etz Chaim. The Reform synagogue’s members live in Monroe, Spotswood, Helmetta, and East Brunswick, among other surrounding towns.

Although the number of additional children was small, it was enough for the congregation to form a junior choir, Levy said. Because attendance at services is mandatory once a month, he said, “we see their parents and grandparents, which has been very nice socially and educationally.”

‘Comfortable and friendly’

According to a 2008 study done for the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, the number of Jewish households in the county decreased 14 percent, from an estimated 27,900 households in 2000 to 24,000 households in 2008. With the county’s large elderly population and decreasing birth rate over the past 20 years, the study suggested, the decrease is likely to continue.

“Sadly we are losing members,” acknowledged Rabbi Eugene Wernick of Beth Ohr. “People with young children are becoming rare in Middlesex County; it’s endemic.”

“This relationship is good for the children because a very small school limits socialization,” he said. “A larger school can provide a premium education.”

Wernick said there has been no conflict with religious practice between the two congregations.

“We’re not strangers to each other,” he said. “We’ve had many services together. We will continue to share other venues and activities.”

Levy acknowledged Etz Chaim was “on the traditional edge” within the Reform movement.

“We say the same prayers and we’ve even learned a few new tunes from them, which is nice,” he said. “The differences are more stylistic than theological.”

Levy, who is studying for his doctorate in midrash at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, said he himself embodies a multi-denominational approach. “I enjoy learning about all movements of Judaism as a form of Jewish expression,” he said.

Bar and bat mitzva students from Beth Ohr are being tutored in their haftara and Torah readings by Linda Benish, a Beth Ohr member. She taught Torah to upper-grade students at the former Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley, where she also ran the daily religious service.

The school merger was working out so well that the two synagogues decided to share their Sukkot celebration in Monroe and plan to jointly celebrate Purim, said Etz Chaim’s vice president for education, Robynn Mann. The evening reading of Megillat Esther will be held in Monroe, the morning reading in Old Bridge. Afterward, a joint carnival is planned.

“Our Hebrew school is rather small as well, with only 24 students,” said Mann. Beth Ohr “has been completely comfortable with our curriculum, and it’s been a very comfortable and friendly merger.”

The school meets weekly for two hours. Jennifer Sontag, Beth Ohr’s education committee cochair, said the synagogue had planned to move from two to one day this year even before the merger.

“Etz Chaim welcomed our kids and treated them like their own,” said Sontag. “We wanted our kids to be in a bigger Jewish environment and it’s working out really well.”

She said the class has three b’not mitzva students, including hers and Clark’s daughters, who are being prepared by Benish for their celebrations at Beth Ohr.

“Of course the members of Beth Ohr feel bad and disappointed about losing the school,” said Clark. “But they are happy that the children attend services so they get to see the children.”

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