When Mount Freedom Jewish Center was established 90 years ago, central Morris County was a summer country refuge for urban Jews. There were at least 20 Jewish bungalow colonies and hotels in the area, as well as some farms.
None of the resorts exists today; the era shifted first with the age of the superhighway, enabling easy travel to the Jersey Shore on the Garden State Parkway and the New York Thruway. What has remained the same, however, through 14 different rabbis, is Mount Freedom Jewish Center, an Orthodox synagogue that tries to stay relevant to its approximately 120 member units from a range of backgrounds.
On Dec. 7, the community’s year-long celebration of its anniversary culminated in a gala evening at the synagogue featuring keynote speaker Rabbi Avi Weiss. Among the 160 people who attended the event — which was chaired by Sharon Nessel and Jamie Ramsfelder — were Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-Dist. 11), Randolph Mayor Tom MacArthur, and Deputy Mayor James Loveys.
Also in attendance were descendants of some of the founding families, many of them still members of the community.
Among them was Toby Messer, whose father-in-law, Howard Messer, was a founder. A garment trade worker, he established Messer’s Hotel in Mount Freedom, now the site of Harbor Hills Day Camp. A congregant for 65 years, since her marriage to Howard’s son Sol, Toby spoke with a guest at the gala, and described the area at the time of her arrival.
“There were dirt roads,” she said. “There were no lights. And there weren’t many houses.” Her husband told her about the one-room schoolhouse he had attended and of being brought to school and back home by a horse and buggy in the spring and fall and by sleigh in the winter.
“When I got here, there was already a synagogue,” said Messer, “but before that, the community would pray in the hotels.” Ten of the founding families owned and operated area resorts. “They decided to build a synagogue and they thought this would be the center of town. That’s how it all started.”
At her mother-in-law’s urging, she said, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary at the synagogue and became president of its “cheer” committee, putting together journals and the like as fund-raisers. “The synagogue was very small,” she said. “It was a clapboard building with a little porch and a small sanctuary.”
According to a synagogue history, many of the first Jews in Mount Freedom were from Russia or Poland, including Max and Yetta Levine, who established a dairy farm at the turn of the last century.
Soon they were joined by other families, including the Steinbergs, Saltzes, Liebermans, Kapners, Tenzers, and Rosenfarbs, and later the Hirschhorn, Elgarten, Heistein, Zudick, and Cohen families. Most were farmers and most needed to supplement their income, so they opened up summer boarding houses for the Jews who were coming west for clean air and to escape the city.
Together they are considered the founding members of the Hebrew Congregation of Mount Freedom, as it was then known. A Torah scroll was donated by grocer Sol Friedberg, and the congregation hired its first rabbi, Louis Hertzberg — who had to supplement his annual salary of $300 with work as a house painter.
For much of its early life, the congregation served the summer residents, and by 1949 the community had built an addition. But after the hotels started to close in the ’50s, membership declined. To attract new congregants, the synagogue undertook a renovation, which was completed in 1965. Slowly, it became a year-round congregation, particularly as the surrounding area developed.
Founded as Orthodox, the congregation has always considered itself Orthodox and virtually all its rabbis have had Orthodox ordination. However, some of its practices have diverged from strict adherence to the edicts of the Orthodox establishment, and not all its religious leaders have come from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
For example, the sanctuary had no mehitza until 2009, shortly before Rabbi Menashe East became religious leader. According to Ramsfelder, “The members of Mount Freedom Jewish Center just never really felt the need to have one.” They did keep a portable mehitza, she said, for those “rare” occasions when necessary.
As the rest of the Orthodox world shifted to the right — perhaps as far back as the 1950s, when the use of the mehitza became the official norm for Modern Orthodoxy and it became a defining feature of American Orthodox synagogues — Mount Freedom Jewish Center did not follow along. Although in 2009 the congregation did install a mehitza (a low one running down the center aisle and obstructing no one’s view), it reflects the kind of practices that have long distinguished Mount Freedom from mainstream Orthodox synagogues — and, said Ramsfelder, that illustrates the reason the shul never officially affiliated with any movement or parent organization. “We are not the ordinary Orthodox synagogue,” she said, “and we like it that way.”
‘Coercion a turnoff’
By hiring East in 2009, the congregation became the first in New Jersey to hire a religious leader trained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Founded by Weiss, the seminary promotes “open Orthodoxy” and represents moderate — and to some Orthodox institutions, controversial — positions on contemporary culture, conversion, and women’s roles in the pews and on the pulpit.
As the cocktail portion of the gala came to a close and guests moved into the reception hall, they cheered and whistled as East was invited to the microphone. They gave him a standing ovation before he began Havdala with his guitar, accompanied by the band.
“The gateway to the soul is the heart, and there is no one with greater heart than Menashe,” said Weiss. “It’s so uplifting to see what he has done here!”
East, acknowledging the many rabbis in the congregation’s long history, invited long-time members to “Just call me Rabbi number 14.”
“Mount Freedom Jewish Center is alive today because of a small secret miracle in each home: hesed, tefila, tzedaka matter to each of us here today,” said East.
Weiss considers MFJC and East foot soldiers in an effort to bring new voices of “open Orthodoxy” to a sometimes rigid Orthodox world.
The Riverdale, NY, rabbi, well known as an activist on behalf of Israel and Soviet Jews, suggests that the voices that dominate debate over Orthodoxy tend to come from the most densely populated “frum” communities.
“Look, Orthodoxy is not just pockets of Teaneck and the Five Towns” on Long Island, he said in a conversation with NJJN at the gala. “There’s a big world out there. And to a large percentage of American Jews, Orthodoxy is irrelevant. We want our rabbis to connect them to Judaism. Our rabbis are rabbis of all Jews.”
Having been ordained at Yeshiva University, Weiss challenged his alma mater with the establishment of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, which has placed as many as 40 rabbis in pulpits throughout the country, he said.
“Look at what Menashe is accomplishing here,” he said. He also cited the leadership roles of other YCT alumni: Rabbi Mishael Zion, Weiss said, “is director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowship in Israel, and for the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s 162 camps, Avi Orlow is director of Jewish education. All recent surveys tell us that the best way to reach young Jews is through camp.”
But like many mavericks, Weiss faces resistance from within the Orthodox mainstream, which includes YU and the Rabbinical Council of America. Perhaps his most controversial act was establishing Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz — its first ordainee, in 2009 — is now the dean of the yeshiva. In June, three women were the first to be given the new title of “maharat” (a Hebrew acronym for “manhiga hilhatit ruhanit Toranit,” “one who is a teacher of Jewish law and spirituality”).
Asked what effect they would have on the Orthodox world, Weiss said, “The women will have as much impact as the men at YCT. They won’t be marginalized.”
In October, Israel’s fervently Orthodox chief rabbinate rejected Weiss’s credentials after he vouched for the Jewish background of a couple who went to Israel to get married. Despite this very public controversy, Weiss remains optimistic about the future of open Orthodoxy.
He also, apparently, buys into the saying that it doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they’re talking about him. “You wouldn’t believe the support I’ve received since being rejected. I have so many requests to sign letters for people making aliya. They say, ‘I only want to go with your letter.’”
He is in turn a critic of the Israeli rabbinate’s domination of religious life in Israel and, by extension, the Orthodox world.
“We’re not a papacy,” he said. “Look, I don’t believe in spiritual coercion. You touch souls using a spirit of love and openness. Open Orthodoxy is good for everyone. Coercion is a turnoff.”
Turning to embrace the congregation at MFJC, and heading into the social hall to hear Menashe East begin Havdala on his guitar, Weiss said, “Here, there are Jews of all affiliations. That’s a dream come true.”