Sussex shuls merge for ‘strength, survival’

Sussex shuls merge for ‘strength, survival’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rob Levy, left, and Rob Richman, presidents of Temple Shalom in Franklin and the Jewish Congregation of Sussex County, respectively, announced the merger of their communities to form B’nai Shalom of Sussex County.
Rob Levy, left, and Rob Richman, presidents of Temple Shalom in Franklin and the Jewish Congregation of Sussex County, respectively, announced the merger of their communities to form B’nai Shalom of Sussex County.

Two historic Jewish communities, both in Sussex County, are joining forces.

Temple Shalom in Franklin and the Jewish Center of Sussex County in Newton announced their agreement to unite on June 1. The High Holy Days will mark the first official days of the marriage.

The new entity will be called B’nai Shalom of Sussex County. 

It’s a big change for both congregations, which have long roots in the community.

Rob Richman of Ledgewood, president of the Jewish Center of Sussex County, now copresident of B’nai Shalom, called the merger “bittersweet.” His wife’s grandparents, among the wave of Jews who came to Sussex County in the early 1900s, were founding members of the JCSC, first known as Congregation Reuven Shimon. The group purchased a private home on Washington Street in Newton in the 1920s, which remains the synagogue building. In 1951, after renovations and an addition to the house, the congregation hired a full-time rabbi and renamed itself the Jewish Center of Sussex County. The Richmans’ children are fourth-generation members.

“We’ve had a decent-sized congregation, but it’s dwindled over the last decade or so,” said Rob Richman. The congregation has dropped to about 50 members, down from about 100 families 15 years ago, he said. He blamed the “general trend in Judaism today of people getting their kids bar mitzva’d and taking off.” Regardless, he said, the merger is all about survival. “We were losing members, and they were struggling. It doesn’t make sense to have two faltering congregations 15 minutes apart when you could have one solid congregation.”

Temple Shalom’s history reaches back to its predecessor, Congregation Sons of Israel, formed during Franklin’s heyday as a mining town in 1909. Its building was deeded to the congregation in 1919 by the local Presbyterian congregation for $100, with the caveat that it could be used only for religious purposes. The group continued as an Orthodox congregation through the decades, but by the 1960s, membership had dwindled, and finding a minyan became challenging.

Meanwhile, there was an influx of Jewish families to the area, particularly in nearby Vernon, in the late 1960s and early 1970s that included the parents of Rob Levy, president of Temple Shalom and now Richman’s copresident at B’nai Shalom, who still lives in Vernon. The newcomers started a Reform congregation, and had plenty of active member families — but no building. Nearby Congregation Sons of Israel had a building, but no members. In 1975, they merged to form Temple Shalom.

In 2009, Temple Shalom celebrated 100 years of Jews in Franklin. 

But by then, the temple was having its own issues. Its membership had dropped from 100 to 70, and a $350,000 capital campaign was put on hold. The leadership decided to focus on bringing in children to foster growth and a future.

Today, Levy said, “we have the kids — but the JCSC has the donors. We both have struggles.” By combining, he said, they can both solve their problems.

The two congregations have had conversations in the past, but they were always stymied by the denominational divide: while neither affiliated formally with a movement, Temple Shalom identifies as Reform, while the JCSC identifies as Conservative. But over the years, the membership grew increasingly similar, though they each retained their own prayer books, and JCSC maintained a kosher kitchen. “But the gap is not as big as it was years ago, and we all agree the school is where the growth is,” said Levy.

So they have put their differences aside. Last September, the religious schools combined, in a tentative first step, with 30 students, four from JCSC. By June, Rabbi Cathy Felix of the JCSC announced she would retire, and the congregations are spending the summer working out the rest of the details: merging bank accounts, coming up with a combined budget, merging boards of trustees, and sorting out which building to use when. 

So far, both Levy and Richman describe a pretty smooth transition with few sticking points. 

The biggest issue has been food. The JCSC has a kosher kitchen; at Temple Shalom, Levy said, “We never had a kitchen; people just bring food from home.” Even on that point, they reached a speedy compromise: The JCSC kitchen will remain kosher, and if people bring food, it will stay out of the kitchen. 

The congregations will retain Temple Shalom’s religious leader, Rabbi Josh Cantor, with whom the children have a connection, and they will use the Reform prayer books, since the religious school curriculum is based on them. But the merged congregation will do a full Torah reading, in JCSC custom, rather than the partial Torah reading that was the norm at Temple Shalom.

The projection for the combined congregation is to “sell everything and rebuild,” according to Levy. Both men envision a new building on a well-traveled road, perhaps Route 15. Both feel their congregations have suffered from secluded locations. With plenty of unaffiliated Jews in the area, they think, location could make a big difference. Of course, they likely can only sell the JCSC’s buildings (synagogue, parsonage, and parking lot) because of the condition of that 1919 sale of the church to Congregation Sons of Israel. So far, Levy said, they aren’t sure what they will do with that building, originally erected in 1832. But they are only taking “baby steps” forward now anyway, said Richman.

Levy estimates that 99 percent of the two congregations are on board. “We may lose one or two families, but we will be much stronger overall,’ he said, adding, “We’re very excited. This is an exciting time for us and for Jews in this area.”

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