In 1962, John F. Kennedy was president, Lawrence of Arabia won the Oscar for best picture, and there were no female rabbis. The Six-Day War was still five years in the future.
That year, a group of Jewish homeowners at Strathmore, a new 1,900-unit Levitt community in Aberdeen, put up $18 apiece and founded what was to become Temple Beth Ahm.
This year, the Conservative synagogue celebrates its 50th anniversary, still holding fast to the guiding principle embodied in its name, which translates as “House of the People.”
Congregation president Stuart Abraham, now in his second term after having held the post in 1980, praised the founding members for their choice of name.
“We strive to be a community, a family, a place of warmth and spirituality for our congregants and guests,” he said. “We have created a community and an extended family that shares in the joys and provides support for the sorrows of life.”
The synagogue has chosen to mark the milestone anniversary in a way keeping with that spirit.
“We wanted to be as inclusive as possible,” said JoAnn Abraham, Stuart’s wife and cochair of the anniversary committee. “At our first meeting, we decided that more people could be involved in the celebration if we designed more than one event, and planned each one to be attractive to a multi-generational audience. A dinner-dance would obviously be too late for kids — and they are our future.”
At the same time, the committee agreed early on to try to be as creative as it could be, while using the fewest possible dollars. “So,” said JoAnn Abraham, “instead of sending letters, we’re using e-mail to communicate with the congregants.”
The committee is marking the year with three large, multi-layered events — the first was connected with Selichot, the second a scholar-in-residence weekend, and the last during the weekend of Lag B’Omer at the end of April.
Committee member Bambi Grundwerg said the Selichot program on Sept. 8 really set the tone. As the synagogue went dark at the end of Havdala, a pre-planned flash mob, equipped with flashlights, began to sing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” a few people at a time until the whole room was rocking. Estimated attendance was 220, significantly more than the 80 that had been expected.
On Feb. 1-3, 2013, the scholar-in-residence will be Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins of Princeton, author of Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul and numerous other books.
In an article published just days before the Selichot service, Rabbi Lisa Malik, Temple Beth Ahm’s religious leader, reminded congregants of the ancient tradition of a “Yovel” or “Jubilee” year, which was held once every 50 years and was ushered in with the blast of a shofar on Yom Kippur.
“While the Selichot prayers serve to remind us that we are all connected to God, our shul’s yearlong 50th anniversary celebration will remind us that we are all connected to the Temple Beth Ahm community,” she wrote. “Both Selichot and the 50th anniversary events will remind us that we belong to a wider plane of existence. “
Malik continued, “Today’s members of TBA are a link in the chain of TBA members past, present, and future. The leaders of our sacred community, myself included, are especially indebted and grateful to TBA’s founding members.”
One of those members — Elaine Singer, an unofficial temple historian — recalled Beth Ahm’s origins.
“At first, we called it the Strathmore at Matawan Jewish Center,” she said. “Initially, we met in schools and firehouses for services and held minyans in private homes.” For several years, the congregation held High Holy Day services in a tent at the corner of Lloyd Road and Church Street. Eventually, they erected a building at 550 Lloyd Rd.
By that time, there had been a friendly breakup of the earliest members. “Within the first year, it became apparent that we did not all share the same goals or visions for the synagogue,” said Singer. “A group broke off and founded Temple Shalom, a Reform congregation, not more than a few blocks away. Those who stayed joined United Synagogue,” the Conservative movement’s congregation body. But, as a sign of solidarity, members of the original congregation helped the splinter group purchase its own piece of land.
Almost a decade later, Singer was named president of the congregation. She was the second woman to head up a Conservative shul in New Jersey and only the third in the nation. Again, a group of congregants broke away, this time founding the Orthodox Young Israel of Aberdeen/Congregation Bet Tefilah, literally across the street from the original congregation, which by this time had changed its name to Temple Beth Ahm.
Through the years, said Singer, Beth Ahm has absorbed smaller congregations from Keyport and Sayreville, thus becoming the recipient of numerous Torah scrolls and other artifacts, including memorial boards and stained-glass windows.
Perhaps no one has had a closer relationship with Temple Beth Ahm than founding members Gerald and Edith Ritz, who continue to attend Shabbat services regularly. Gerald also was the synagogue’s third president back in the ’60s.
“TBA is the place where our daughter and son were bat and bar mitzva,” said the Ritzes in an e-mail to NJJN. “This is where our kids received a Jewish education, and made lifelong friends. TBA is a place for prayer, a center for friendship and cultural enrichment. As a community, we have celebrated simhas and mourned the loss of our loved ones.
“On Saturday morning, it is where we belong together with our friends, in prayer,” they said. “Temple Beth Ahm has been our home for 50 years. We built it from an idea, with willing hands, voices and hearts.”