Entering Adath Shalom, Ethel Lerner was greeted with kisses and hugs, a guitar-and-song serenade from Rabbi Moshe Rudin, and even a hora.
Elegant in a tweed suit and with freshly coiffed hair, Lerner is the elder stateswoman of the 80-plus Birthday Club at the Morris Plains synagogue, which launched on Nov. 30 with a luncheon to celebrate her 100th birthday (though her actual date of birth is Dec. 4).
“We try to reach out to this older generation,” said Emily Golomb, chair of the synagogue’s chesed committee. “They are often homebound, and they are the treasure of the community.”
The club was started by congregation social worker Carol Berman to bring members of that generation together on a regular basis. About 15 gathered on the inaugural day; some came just to fete Lerner, others as part of the cohort Berman and Golomb are reaching out to.
As they settled into the rhythm of the afternoon, the seniors reminisced, shared photos, and listened as Lerner’s friend Mim Willinger captured the sweeping changes of the century since the honoree’s birth with a list of common devices, each rising and giving way to the next, then leaping even further: from the horse and buggy to self-driving cars, from ice boxes to microwaves, from party lines to smartphones. If once upon a time Willinger was drawn to Lerner’s “outstanding” cookie parties and expertise at the bridge table, she said, “Now, I admire her stamina, clear-headedness, good values, and ability to adapt to advanced living.”
Tammy Applebaum recalled meeting Lerner and other members of the sisterhood of the Dover Jewish Center after it merged with her own congregation, Temple Shalom of Boonton, in 1988 to form Adath Shalom. “I met all the sisterhood presidents. They were older. And they smoked!” she said, to some laughter. But she also recalled with deep respect, “We had a couple of bucks; they had a fortune.” And addressing Ethel, she added, “You were one of the first people we all met and liked!”
Another attendee at the celebration had brought along a scrapbook filled with photos and documents from decades of sisterhood events; the organization years ago was called “The Ladies’ Auxiliary.” They passed around selected pictures, remembering friends who passed away, reliving moments when children were young, and searching for whispers of their earlier lives.
Lerner paused at one photo and acknowledged, “I don’t even recognize any of these people — including me!” But she did remember with fondness serving as a model for the sisterhood’s many fashion shows, a staple of women’s synagogue organizations in the mid-20th century.
She described the tremendous changes egalitarianism brought to the Conservative movement for women. In the arena of appropriate attire for synagogue, although she was not opposed to the reasons for some of the changes, she found they left her sartorially challenged. “I was appalled the first time I saw a member go up on the bima in slacks,” she said. “I never came into this building on a holiday in slacks.”
The women reminisced about a time when Dover was served by just one road: Route 46 — not by Route 80, Route 15, or even Route 10. The off-the-beaten-track location — at the time a summertime destination — was part of the area’s charm. Lerner moved from the Bronx to a townhouse in Dover with her husband, Jack, in the summer of 1954. When Labor Day weekend rolled around, she remembered, the two sat on their porch, marveling at their good fortune. “People are packing to go home, and we don’t have to go!” she recalled saying to him. “We loved it. It felt like we were living in the country.” Of course, the women all knew the address: 100 Kendall Court. “Everyone lived at Kendall Court. It was the only place you could find an apartment when you first moved out to the country,” a sentiment echoed by the other women.
A few years later, Ethel and Jack bought a house in Randolph, where they raised their two children, Marc, of Holmdel; and Phillip, of Lakewood. Today, Lerner lives in Mount Arlington. Like many in the group, she is a widow — Jack, a chemical engineer who worked for Picatinny Arsenal, died in 2004.
The reasons for her loyalty to Adath Shalom, even at 100, are simple: “I feel I have to belong to a synagogue; and why not stay where I have been since 1954?” she said, adding, “I feel appreciated here, and I’ve known some of these women as long as this building has been here.”
As they finished lunch and a cake was brought out, the group sang “Happy Birthday” to Lerner in English and Hebrew, and she blew out the candles.
Asked about her thoughts on becoming a centenarian, she said, “I’m a bit surprised,” pointing out that both of her parents died young — her mother succumbed to breast cancer at 42, and her father died at 65.
The grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of 25, Lerner takes joy in her blessings and her family. “I just want to do what I’m doing every day—being with my children and friends,” she said.
Lerner’s aide, Maria Zirpoli, agreed. “That’s the best gift in life,” she said.