According to Essex Ed, Turtle Back Zoo’s groundhog, everyone should gear up for an early spring. There’s no better place to start than the warm West Orange Jewish community at its annual Discover West Orange shabbaton. Discover West Orange, including the shabbaton, is a partnership between two of the community’s Modern Orthodox shuls: Congregation Ahavas Achim B’nai Jacob and David (AABJ&D) and Congregation Ohr Torah. This year, members of the community will be on hand to welcome visitors during Shabbat Zachor, March 6-7.
Plans are underway for a banner weekend. Michael Diamond, from Ohr Torah, and Esti Buskin, a recent West Orange homeowner and member of AABJ&D, are shabbaton co-chairs representing their respective synagogues, both located along Pleasant Valley Way, of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” fame. They are looking forward to greeting visitors and speaking more about the community they love.
Diamond noted, “This is my sixth or seventh year running the shabbaton. What’s amazing is that we have so many shabbaton committee members from families who ‘discovered’ West Orange on a previous shabbaton.”
“West Orange is still an undiscovered gem for a lot of people on the other side of the Hudson. The shabbaton is an amazing opportunity to ensure more young families from the greater NYC area can experience the warmth of the West Orange community and make the all-important decision as to whether this is where they want to raise their family,” he continued.
Buskin agreed, adding, “Two years ago, after spending one Shabbat in West Orange, my family and I decided to move here. Fast forward to today and we are part of a close-knit community where we have the ability to impact the lives of everyone around us.”
With all that West Orange has to offer in a warm, welcoming Jewish community, within a diverse area nestled in the Watchung Mountains, it’s no wonder there has been a growth spurt within the township over the past few years. Updated indoor and outdoor sports facilities; entertainment and cultural establishments in and around town, including the renovated Turtle Back Zoo complex; and easy travel and close proximity to New York City are just a sampling of the amenities. The housing market offers a wide range of possibilities, with affordable housing within walking distance to the many shuls around town.
Buskin added, “West Orange offers so much for families of all ages. The Lauren Elise Bier Nursery School, housed in the AABJ&D synagogue, has been taking care of and teaching preschool children in West Orange for over 50 years. Starting next year, we are excited to announce that the nursery will offer a new infant program starting at age 6 weeks!”
Some of the most recently transplanted families who now call West Orange home discussed their welcome into the community:
Tzvi and Davita Robinson revealed, “Having lived on the Upper West Side for years, we craved the opportunity to be a part of a community and West Orange has been a significant improvement! Despite having lived in West Orange for less than six months when we had our first child, Ella Pearl, the West Orange Jewish community stepped up with a meal train that has lasted for months to help us during this wonderful but tiring time. We even received multiple meals from members of the community we had never met but who wanted to help us and welcome us to West Orange.”
Arielle and Jonathan Newcombe remarked, “What initially drew us to West Orange was the warm and welcoming community. When we visited AABJ&D one Shabbos, we were greeted by a number of young families who were excited to talk with us about the area, the shul and the preschool for our 4 and 1½ year olds, now 5 and 2½. The community is very diverse and we love the option of being able to go to Ohr Torah sometimes as well!” Arielle grew up in West Orange and said, “The town has changed since I moved at age 16, and very much for the better, with young families living all across the town! We belong to AABJ&D and sometimes walk to Ohr Torah, where my parents belong, and we also have friends.”
“The preschool at AABJ&D was another big draw,” according to Arielle. “Having our kids’ classmates and friends just blocks away [allows] them to form wonderful, strong and hopefully long-lasting friendships!” The biggest benefit to living as a Jew in West Orange, she said, is “hands down, the community. The group of friends we have made, and even our neighbors and fellow shul members who we don’t know so well yet, have really come together to support us in a big way since we moved in last January. (And Aron’s Kosher Supermarket!!!)”
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler, religious leader of AABJ&D, remarked that the children who grow up in West Orange are “different than other kids. They are conscious of their responsibility to the Jewish community and to mankind. There is a commitment to Torah and mitzvot and just a good overall feeling.”
Daveda and Matthew Lipman moved to West Orange from Riverdale, New York, in August of 2018. They were attracted to West Orange by “the vibrant Jewish community and exemplary reputation of JKHA/RKYHS. We found that West Orange offers a variety of reasonably priced housing options and several options for daily commuting into Manhattan.”
“Over the years,” they said, “we have been told that it is easy to identify a young person who has grown up in West Orange. Their values and middos make them stand out among their peers and we have found this to be very true. Under the leadership of Rabbi Zwickler and Rabbi Sharbat, AABJ&D offers a variety of learning, youth and family program opportunities. In West Orange, we have discovered that the community really values each family; this allows us the opportunity to become involved in shul, school and local community activities.”
Rabbi Marc Spivak, spiritual leader of Ohr Torah, commented, “West Orange is really growing. What’s special is that we are close-knit as a community; we do a lot of programs that include all the community shuls.”
The rabbis from more than a handful of shuls within the boundaries of West Orange, including Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz of Chabad of West Orange and Rabbi Yosef Sharbat, the spiritual leader of the Sephardic minyan at AABJ&D, said that they enjoy the community spirit. They pointed to the fact that they have members who belong to more than one synagogue in town, who eagerly participate in the various activities the different shuls have to offer. While the community’s religious life is geared to make the most observant families feel welcome, including a kosher mikvah and a regularly checked, widely encompassing eruv, West Orange prides itself on being welcoming and non-judgmental, with something for everyone.
Rabbi Sharbat added, “We have a number of families where one spouse is Ashkenazic and one is Sephardic, and they want to hold on to both traditions. We offer that inclusiveness.”
All corners of West Orange are remodeling and making room for families searching for a vibrant community with a proven history of menschlichkeit. For more highlights about West Orange history, Jewish life and amenities, visit the Discover West Orange website at discoverwestorange.com. There you can learn about the community’s New Family Incentive program, which offers $50,000 or more in financial advantages when you move to the township, join a shul and send your child to a local shul nursery school or yeshiva.
Buskin noted, “And for those who grew up or live in Bergen County, our malls and stores are open on Sunday!”
A typical Friday in West Orange might find residents shopping in town until two hours prior to Shabbat. They can stop at the West Orange Bake Shop for the freshest baked challahs, including their newest recipe, not yet named, plus delicious sweet treats. From there, it’s easy to head around the corner to Aron’s for one-stop kosher grocery needs, prepared food and more baked goods.
Freshly-made kosher sushi can be found at several establishments around town, including Aron’s, which celebrated its first anniversary in the fall of 2019. While running Friday errands, be sure to pick up a copy of The Jewish Link at any of these or other local kosher establishments, including ShopRite, the MetroWest JCC, Judaica shops like the Lubavitch Center and CBL, or any of the West Orange synagogues or local area yeshivas, to enjoy reading before your Shabbat nap.
Buskin concluded, “Over the last few years, West Orange has been growing fast as more people realize something special is going on and want to be a part of it. Few if any communities can boast the luxuries we want in a tri-state community with the size and connection that lets everyone be a part of it. In West Orange, there is an opportunity to get involved, to make a difference, and to build something special for the future.”
Move over, Essex Ed; while your forecast of an early spring may be questionable, the warmth of the West Orange Jewish community is a sure thing. For questions about the Discover West Orange shabbaton weekend or to reserve your spot, visit www.discoverwestorange.com or email [email protected].
By Sharon Mark Cohen