The ties that bind JESPY House and Oheb Shalom Congregation — both in South Orange — have always been deep, if informal.
Cynthia Plishtin, a founder of the program for adults with learning and developmental disabilities, was married at Oheb Shalom and celebrated her bat mitzva at the synagogue when it was still on High Street in Newark.
The family of the late Judi Schechner, a longtime JESPY president, were among the synagogue’s founders. The new JESPY building on Milligan Place will be named for her.
And JESPY clients have long come to Oheb Shalom for morning minyan, Shabbat services, holiday programs, and other events.
Now, the congregation is taking steps toward building an even stronger relationship. Earlier this year, Oheb offered its building for JESPY House board meetings. And when JESPY House called Oheb executive director Linda Griffler to rent space for a Hanukka party, she had a different idea.
“I said, ‘No, we need to do this together. You’re not going to rent space. We’re going to have a huge Oheb/JESPY Hanukka party.’ And we worked together after that for three months, and here we are,” she said at the party, held at the synagogue on Dec. 15, the fifth night of Hanukka.
JESPY House assistant director Frank Bresnick liked the party idea.
“We have a longstanding relationship with Oheb Shalom, but we’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. “I hope this is the start of more deepened relationships.”
Guests packed into the synagogue for the festivities, with JESPY clients coming out in large numbers and mingling with congregants.
There were latkes and dreidels and crafts; Cantor Rikki Lippitz led a sing-along. Everyone from nursery school families to senior citizens took part. Many came simply to celebrate Hanukka with the community and had no idea there was another component.
“It’s really nice that we can share the holiday together,” congregant Deborah Camiel said. “A lot of them were mingling and saying hello.”
Rebecca Gelman, another congregant, said she supports the effort and the chance to interact with JESPY clients. “You see them around town in the community, but you never get to approach them or talk to them,” she said. “It’s nice to feel part of one community.”
For many JESPY clients, the party marked their first time at any of the area synagogues. Michael Parris, a JESPY client for 14 years, said he came “to enjoy myself.” Although he said he went to services often as a child with his parents, he had never been to Oheb before. “It would be nice to come here for services,” he said.
A few JESPY clients are familiar faces at Oheb. Longtime client Jonathan Rothchild, an Oheb Shalom member, helps make the morning minyan most weekdays and is a regular worshiper at Shabbat morning services. He was invited to light one of the Hanukka candles at the party. He called davening at Oheb “a very uplifting experience. I like it very much. It’s wonderful to glorify God. It’s very comforting.”
Plishtin, also invited to light a candle, was thrilled. “It’s wonderful because the initiative came from the temple — because we didn’t ask; we were asked. I am very proud [Oheb] reaches out to others in the community.”
Judi Schechner’s son Michael, who lit a candle with his family, said, “I feel her in the room. She’s smiling.”
While JESPY clients take advantage of services and events at all the area synagogues, including Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel and Congregation Beth El, both in South Orange, and Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, Bresnick pointed out that Oheb Shalom is the place where the largest number of clients attend the most programs. On a regular basis, however, just 35 clients regularly attend services out of a total population of 165, he said. He hopes their participation in the party will encourage more clients to attend services.
Mitch Rottenstreich, who holds a variety of positions at JESPY, including religious coordinator, summed up the event.
“It’s very important that we have wonderful neighbors like Oheb Shalom to invite us into their community to come and participate in a holiday that really symbolizes those less fortunate coming together with those willing to help out,” he said.