Editor's note: The print edition of this article mistakenly omitted Jim Dunleavy from the list of members of the Teaneck Town Council. We regret the error.
Growing up Orthodox in Teaneck in the late 1970s into the 1980s was quite a different experience from that of today. There were no dilemmas as to which kosher eateries to patronize as there were barely a handful. Observant women had to trek to Washington Heights or Brooklyn to visit a mikvah. The choice of Jewish day and high schools was limited and often required traveling distances.
The first pioneering residents of Teaneck rolled up their sleeves and set out to create additional shuls, schools and organizations that would attract new Orthodox families to the neighborhood. Among these community activists were Rabbi Dr. Simcha Katz and David Lew. Katz, a professor of economics at CUNY’s Baruch College, and Lew, a labor attorney, worked closely together while Lew served as president of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. One of the first major projects on which the two collaborated was the construction of the Teaneck Mikvah. After much negotiation, a single lot of land on Windsor Road was purchased for $22,000. From 1976 to 1978, Lew and Katz oversaw the construction of the building, which was met several times with bomb threats and physical attacks. Often accompanying his father to the building site was a 4-year-old Elie Katz, donning his very own hard hat, no doubt taking mental notes for his future as mayor of Teaneck. The senior Katz went on to serve as the president of the Teaneck Mikvah Association for six years. For young Karen Lew, her father’s daily commitment to the community was simply “a way of life.”
In discussing plans for the expansion of existing shuls versus the construction of new buildings in other areas of the community, the elder Katz and Lew were in agreement that expanding the neighborhood through constructing additional shuls was the way to go. Katz and Lew saw the great potential of the 19 acres of wetlands on Roemer Avenue. Their initial dream was to create an entire new community with a shul, private homes and eventually re-locating the Yeshiva of Hudson County to the area. However, in the face of community opposition, they were forced to be satisfied with only five acres on which they oversaw the construction of Congregation Keter Torah, the elegant facility used for a myriad of community simchas and events, which was graciously endowed by Norman Stark. Young Elie Katz and Karen Lew were witness to this successful addition to the community.
When the Lews’ son Zvi was about to enter high school, his father was concerned that Teaneck did not have a boys’ yeshiva high school. Calling together local parents, a plan was put forward to purchase a building in town. Lew and Katz made the purchase together with their team of parents and educators, and a site was procured on North Street to house the beginnings of Torah Academy of Bergen County. Over the years, Lew served as president of The Moriah School, on the Board of Adjustment, the Planning Board, the Township Council and later as the township labor attorney.
Who would imagine that 30 years after Lew was elected to the Teaneck Municipal Council as the first Orthodox Jewish member, his daughter Karen would be elected to the council as the first Orthodox Jewish woman? Who could imagine 30 years ago, that the little boy with the hard hat whose small handprint was embedded at the bottom of the Teaneck mikvah, would serve the Teaneck community multiple times on council including as mayor and currently as Deputy Mayor Elie Katz?
In truth, their paths crossed quite often. As a college student, Karen served on the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps. During her years at TVAC, she worked alongside a young man named Elie Katz. Eric Orgen, who hailed from Los Angeles and attended Yeshiva University, served on TVAC along with roommate and Teaneck native Shai Jaskoll. During her term as president of TVAC, Karen Lew met her future husband. Eric, a business consultant, still rides a weekly shift at TVAC and serves on the CSS Security Committee at Congregation Rinat Yisrael.
Orgen’s career as a pharmacist these past 25 years has kept her busy. In addition to raising her two daughters, Orgen has taken upon herself many community commitments. She has served on the Teaneck Planning Board for two terms. She has also served as president of her shul, Shaare Tefillah, and was active with her husband at their children’s school, Ben Porat Yosef.
Beginning July 1, Orgen will serve on the Teaneck Township Council along with Elie Y. Katz, Deputy Mayor Mark (Mendy) Schwartz, who also serves as co-publisher of The Jewish Link, Keith Kaplan, Gervonn Romney Rice, Jim Dunleavy and Michael Pagan (the first Hispanic male to serve on the council). Following in the trailblazing footsteps of her late father, Orgen will be the first Orthodox Jewish woman to serve on the council.
Orgen hopes to focus on the needs of the seniors in our community, their housing, health concerns and medical coverage among other issues. She and the council will be focused on safety, affordability, small businesses and recreational facilities. During our community’s serious battle with the coronavirus, Katz, for his part, has been a constant comforting and informational voice, providing updated information regarding medical facilities, testing sites, Teach NJ and pantry food distribution projects, and psychological support services for our residents.
By Pearl Markovitz