Some 30 years after they met as youth group leaders, four New Jersey residents have reconnected as members of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.
All joined the Reform synagogue in South Orange independently, and all four now serve on the board of trustees.
The four — Andrea (Weissman) Bergman, Shari (Danzig) Stein, Bill Strugger, and Sue (Dreier) Wishnow — agree that their youth group experiences laid a foundation for a commitment to Jewish communal life and community service, and that it also influenced their choice of congregation.
Back in the 1980s, as teenagers from Montclair, Old Bridge, Ewing Township, and Warren, respectively, they met at statewide conclaves and weekend events sponsored by the NJ branch of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (then known locally as JFTY, now NFTY-GER, Garden Empire Region).
The four students all held leadership positions in JFTY or their local synagogue youth groups.
Although they didn’t stay in touch in the ensuing years, they were drawn to TSTI for the same qualities that moved them in their youth.
The congregation’s “style of worship brings me back to the collegial feeling of our weekend and summer conclaves,” said Wishnow, who now lives in Short Hills.
The temple’s Hebrew school and youth group were also draws for Wishnow and her family, which includes two children.
“I wanted those bonding opportunities for my children because of my own experiences,” she said. She has served on TSTI’s board of trustees for six years and the executive board for four years in a number of roles, and is currently vice president of community and communication.
Strugger, who lives in Maplewood and has three children, draws a straight line between the group’s experiences 33 years ago and their current involvement in Jewish communal life. “The opportunity to hold leadership positions, the social aspects, and meeting so many other Jewish kids from around the state definitely sparked something in us,” he said.
A member of TSTI since 2004, he answered the call “to give back to the community” last year. “When I was asked to join the board, I thought, this is a good opportunity,” he said.
Bergman, now a Millburn resident, stayed active in a number of ways after her youth group experience. “My Jewish roots were always a part of my life, and I gravitated to my youth group friends for my social life,” she said.
She has served on the TSTI board of trustees on and off for five years and was president of its Women’s Connection group for two years. Bergman, who has three children, is the coordinator, through the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, of the local PJ Library, the national initiative that sends families with young children free Jewish-themed books each month.
Stein, who also lives in Millburn, is a relative newcomer to the TSTI board, but she served on the temple’s religious school board and on the Women’s Connection board for several years. She said her community service today is a direct outgrowth of her youth group experiences.
“I’ve had a strong passion for temple involvement since my first JFTY conclave in 1979, and the spirit of community has carried over into my service at TSTI,” she said. She and her husband, who have two children, joined TSTI in the late 1990s, attracted by the temple’s clergy and members.
Wishnow said she values TSTI’s affiliation with the Reform movement. “Having a large movement behind us with such a strong youth group component allows us to offer an experience like my friends and I enjoyed years ago in new ways to new generations,” she said. “From the melodies to the friendships to the community service — for me, there is a piece of JFTY at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.”