Succasunna shul celebrates half-century of social action

Succasunna shul celebrates half-century of social action

Temple Shalom puts helping the needy at the top of its agenda

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Temple Shalom kicked off its 50th anniversary festivities with a brunch honoring rabbis who started their Jewish education at Temple Shalom. Photo courtesy Temple Shalom
Temple Shalom kicked off its 50th anniversary festivities with a brunch honoring rabbis who started their Jewish education at Temple Shalom. Photo courtesy Temple Shalom

When Marshall Gates of Succasunna was a kid, he remembers getting carsick driving from Succasunna all the way to the family’s synagogue in Morristown for religious school. He also remembers plenty of interrupted dinners as his father, Ed, fielded phone calls from families like theirs who wanted to organize a synagogue closer to home.

In 1960, those 10 families established the Roxbury Reform Temple, now known as Temple Shalom, and held services and religious-school classes at the Franklin School in Roxbury. Ed Gates served as its first president.

This year, the congregation, with 440 members, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Temple Shalom’s rabbi emeritus, Joel Soffin, will serve as scholar-in-residence through the weekend of Nov. 19-21 to mark the milestone, with more events to come. A brunch with rabbis whose Jewish education began at Temple Shalom kicked off the yearlong celebration in early October.

Early members recall High Holy Day services held at the Triple Lake Ranch, a nearby dude ranch no longer in existence.

“One year, during a most solemn moment, the loudspeaker came alive announcing to all that a trail ride would begin in fifteen minutes,” reported the temple’s first rabbi, Bernard B. Goldsmith, in a booklet that commemorated Temple Shalom’s 25th anniversary, written by Marshall Gates, who is now creating a booklet covering the following 25 years.

The congregation’s first full-time rabbi, Richard J. Sobel, who joined the community in 1969, planted the seeds of the community’s involvement in social action. He led the congregation to take a stand against prayer and Christmas observance in public schools, supported boycotts of lettuce and grapes harvested under reportedly adverse labor conditions, and led discussions about the military draft.

Under his successor, Rabbi Joel Soffin, who arrived in 1979, social action took root as the essential, defining feature of the community.

Soffin, who began his career as an economist, developed an interest in poverty issues while doing student research in El Salvador. The congregation’s first effort was sponsoring refugees from Vietnam, known as “boat people,” and helping them resettle in the United States.

In the early 1980s, the congregation sent its first delegation abroad, to the USSR in support of Soviet Jewry, and ended up sponsoring many refusenik families who eventually immigrated to the Morris County area.

The synagogue subsequently sent groups to El Salvador, Argentina, Ukraine, and Ethiopia, working on specific poverty and human rights issues in each country.

The congregation developed what became known as “The Temple Shalom Question.” Every member of the synagogue was entitled to ask someone in difficult straits, “How can we help?” The synagogue would commit itself to providing assistance.

Today, the congregation is led by Rabbi David Levy, who arrived in 2006. He has brought a new child-oriented focus to the community, according to Marcia Geltman, who served as congregation president during the transition period. Although she thinks a certain percentage of the members may miss the heavy social action focus, she pointed out that almost every child now continues from the religious school into the synagogue’s post-bar/bat mitzva Hebrew Academy; there were 70 confirmands this year.

Geltman said that through the partnership that has developed between Levy and religious school director Corey Herman, “the religious school has skyrocketed.”

Many of the celebratory events for the 50th anniversary will be held in Temple Shalom’s building, dedicated in 1965 with then U.S. Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen (Rodney’s father) in attendance. Despite the synagogue’s having undergone a series of renovations and expansions, Marshall Gates said that he can remember playing on the foundation area of the synagogue as a youth, and can still see the original layout of the building in his mind’s eye as he walks around the building.

And, he said, the original atmosphere remains. “I think there’s still that friendliness and community spirit we’ve always had.”

That’s what brought him back to Temple Shalom when he returned to the area with his new wife in 1972, when they were among the first in the “second generation” of congregants to join.

“My parents’ friends were all at the temple, and even today, the people who I am friends with now are people I met through the congregation,” said Gates.

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