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Synagogue makes room for secular cooperative
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Synagogue makes room for secular cooperative

Different beliefs, but shared commitment to Jewish education

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Montclair Jewish Workshop families celebrated Hanukka together Dec. 19 at their own gathering, pictured, held in a member’s home. But this year, some MJW families also attended a Hanukka service and dinner at Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in V
Montclair Jewish Workshop families celebrated Hanukka together Dec. 19 at their own gathering, pictured, held in a member’s home. But this year, some MJW families also attended a Hanukka service and dinner at Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in V

The Montclair Jewish Workshop has plenty of children, but no space to call home.

Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona has a building, but few children.

Together, they think they can gain the best of both worlds.

This is not a merger; rather, it is an unlikely alliance between a Jewish secular cooperative and a Conservative synagogue, both seeking a stronger community.

“We are different in the way we observe Judaism and in our philosophy, but both sides come with a sense of openness,” said former MJW president Emily Grand. “It’s the right opportunity at the right time.”

The arrangement begins with a financial element: MJW, which promotes Jewish culture within a secular framework, rents classroom space from Beth Ahm, as it has done with other organizations in the past. But this time, there is also a nascent sharing of community.

MJW members accepted invitations from Beth Ahm to attend two Shabbat Hanukka services and dinners. Several MJW families have enrolled a total of 10 children in Hebrew language classes in the Beth Ahm religious school as a supplement to MJW Sunday school classes, and will help lead services as their Hebrew progresses, toward the end of the year. They are even planning a joint purimspiel that will incorporate a humanist element into the readings; Grand is hoping for more, including joint service projects, like food drives.

“We give them a Jewish place to do what they do, and we get along, although we are each different,” said Laurie Brandt, Beth Ahm’s vice president of education. “But we have the same goals — to give Jewish teaching to our children and maintain it through youth and up.”

MJW is growing steadily; founded in 1996, it now has about 30 family members and about 50 children. That number is double what they had just two years ago. Classes meet two Sunday mornings per month and emphasize culture, history, pluralism, and values like charity and social service, but without the religious language many of the MJW parents find uncomfortable or objectionable.

Beth Ahm has 125 member units, but there are only five or six children in its religious school. “We’re a small synagogue looking to grow. This was an opportunity to share our synagogue,” said Beth Ahm president Kevin Buckley. “We have a synagogue that is underutilized, and we’re glad to have Jewish kids and families use our facility.”

The synagogue offers space to any number of community support groups that meet during the week, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Surviving after Suicide (for families and others who have lost a loved one to suicide). Brandt welcomed MJW as an extension of this philosophy, and acknowledged the appeal of overlapping Jewish interests as an “added bonus.”

The congregation has invited MJW members to participate in all Beth Ahm programs, with a focus on those that are family-oriented.

Brandt stopped short of looking at the relationship as any kind of partnership, but said that Jewish education “in any form is a positive.”

Buckley views the new venture somewhat differently. “It’s good for morale,” he said. “It’s great to see more Jewish kids, more families at the synagogue, and more kids leading services. What’s not to like?”

“We’re figuring it out as we go along,” said MJW’s Grand. “Part of Jewish life is learning and thinking; we think a lot about what it means to be Jewish.”

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