The Orthodox community of Springfield, New Jersey, has grown tremendously in recent years, bolstered by an influx of young families looking for a haven close to, yet outside of, some of the more densely populated surrounding communities. “Warm and welcoming” and “tight knit community” are phrases often used to describe Springfield, but the description is never complete without mention of Congregation Israel (CIS), the community’s Orthodox shul.
For the past two decades, the shul has been ably led by its rav and morah d’asrah, Rabbi Chaim Marcus. Last month, in an effort to engage the community’s growing number of young people, and to help attract new young families, the shul hired Rabbi Chayim Gerson as assistant rabbi.
“As the community grows, what was once a smaller group of youth continues to grow,” Rabbi Gerson said in an interview with The Jewish Link. “My job is to help with the educational aspects and youth programming for kids from age 3 to high school and post-high school. We need to have all kinds of programming for all ages. I am here to assist and support Rabbi Marcus in whatever the community needs as it expands.”
For Rabbi Gerson and his wife, affectionately known to all as CM, this position is the perfect next step in both their personal and professional lives. Rabbi Gerson’s father was a congregational rabbi in Denver for 25 years, and CM’s father was a community rabbi and educator in Houston, so supporting the Jewish community is second nature to both of them.
“It’s the perfect fit for us because we grew up with this,” Rabbi Gerson said. “This work, and the community as a whole, was a big draw for us.”
Rabbi Gerson shared that the position came about in part because of his prior relationship with Rabbi Marcus, with whom he worked at Bruriah in Elizabeth for the past two years.
“Rabbi Marcus approached us and asked if we’d be interested in this position. It was a title and job that would engage the youth of the community, and also the adults in more of a rabbinic role,” he said. “I was honored, and I feel very lucky to be able to learn from such a caring and charismatic man as Rabbi Marcus. I just want to take in as much as I can.”
Rabbi Gerson and CM have worked at various camps over the past decade, most recently at Camp Mesorah, and both work at local yeshivas, so their experience and knowledge of the local communities, and their experience working with young people, translated perfectly to this new position. This is Rabbi Gerson’s third year at Bruriah, and last year he started the Shorashim program at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston, which “engages students who are transferring from a non-yeshiva high school to help them acclimate.” CM spent the past six years as a full-time limudei kodesh teacher at RKYHS, and this year she has taken on the title of director of student activities.
“We teach at both JEC/Bruriah and Kushner, and so many of those families live in Springfield, so we already know many of the parents and kids,” Rabbi Gerson noted.
He shared that one of the things that drew them to Springfield is “first and foremost, the centrality of the shul. … The community has one Orthodox shul, Congregation Israel, and one rav, Rabbi Marcus,” he said. “The shul plays such a huge role in everyone’s lives and because of that, it is attracting many younger families with young children.”
The shul is centrally located within the community, said Rabbi Gerson, so “it’s easy for the kids to play on Shabbos afternoon, for meals, etc. It’s such a vibrant place and people are so engaged already; we’re just building on that.”
Rabbi Gerson and CM will be “engaging all ages of kids. We are here for the youth, to make their Shabbos and community experience as robust as we can. … Interacting with the kids is our main responsibility. What comes along with that is interacting with their parents and facilitating the continued growth of the shul.
“We are running the youth groups on Shabbos,” he added. “I’ve also been speaking at the hashkama minyan. When the rabbi is away, and at some other times, I’ll speak at the main minyan. When Shabbos starts and ends earlier we’ll have onegs and tisches for the youth. It’s very exciting.”
What do the Gersons hope to accomplish at CIS? “The sky’s the limit,” Rabbi Gerson said.
The Gersons have been in Springfield for a month already and, as Rabbi Gerson said, they “hit the ground running. Camp ended on August 17 and we started on August 18. We have five to 10 boxes left to unpack.”
Rabbi Gerson is excited for this new chapter in their lives. “We wanted a smaller community where we could make a bigger impact,” he said. The couple moved from Teaneck, where they had spent the past two years, and before that, Washington Heights.
“We are incredibly supportive of the lay leadership and Rabbi Marcus,” he concluded. “Rabbi Marcus started a movement here, with his own special flavor. We’re ready to help in any way we can.”
For more information about CIS visit www.congregationisrael.org.