One of the best ways you can gauge the dedication of communal leaders is to see if they’d work contrary to their own preferences for the betterment of their organizations, and would inspire others to do so.
By that standard, the leaders of Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan have demonstrated conclusively that their passion for the preservation of their shul overrules their own personal choices.
Three long-term members and leaders of the synagogue—Bonnie Leff, chair of the strategic planning committee; Maurice Zagha, immediate past president; and Eli Kramer, a past gabbai and board member who now serves on the strategic planning committee, noted the serious decline in membership in the congregation over the past two decades, from a height of 400 families to currently less than 200 families. They worked together to assess the demographic changes to the area and chart the best options to secure the future of the shul.
Congregation Sons of Israel was established in 1917 in Englishtown by families of farmers and small business owners who had immigrated from Russia, Poland and other points in central Europe. Founded as an Orthodox congregation, with a charter that required the shul to hire a rabbi with Orthodox semicha, the shul and its membership grew to embrace more and more families.
In the mid-1960s synagogue leaders noted a need for expanded facilities, and a population growth in Western Monmouth County, and they advocated for the congregation to relocate to Manalapan. A generous donation of land at Gordons Corner Road by the Kevork Hovnanian building company helped make the relocation a reality, and the new shul building was formally dedicated in October 1969.
At some point in those years of transition, the shul leaders made one other consequential change: They decided to remove the shul’s mechitza to encourage local families who had roots in other denominations to join the shul.
Leff said that the shul remained traditional in all other respects and designated a few rows in the front of the shul where separate seating was maintained. Shul leaders also were happy to put up a temporary mechitza if a family holding a simcha on a Shabbat requested it.
The Leff, Zagha and Kramer families joined the shul in the era that followed and all were comfortable sitting with their spouses in the pews. Yet they observed the shul membership declining in recent decades and decided that serious action was needed to create a vibrant future for the congregation.
Over the past decade, Leff and a large committee undertook a “wide-ranging process” that included an analysis of current demographic trends in Monmouth County and a close review of national studies of the trends affecting different streams of Judaism. They interviewed scores of local leaders and synagogue members and came to the conclusion that, with no serious changes, the shul’s membership would continue to decline.
Leff and members of the strategic planning committee presented the synagogue’s board of directors with three potential options for the future of the congregation: 1) stay as it is and hope for the best; 2) merge with another synagogue; and 3) restore the mechitza and return the shul to full-fledged Orthodox affiliation.
The strategic planning committee recommended the third option and in the late summer of 2021 the board of directors endorsed that recommendation. The board scheduled a vote of the entire membership and held three open forums in October 2021 to discuss the recommendation to restore the mechitza.
At the forums, shul leaders pointed out to attendees that, in many respects, the synagogue had always been Orthodox in its policies. For example, the shul has historically permitted only men on the bima and for many years hosted NCSY shabbatons in the synagogue. As Kramer recalled, many of the members who attended these meetings had similar comments on the proposed change, saying that although they wanted to sit with their families, they also wanted to see the synagogue build a strong future.
When the congregational vote was held in November, participation was robust and the verdict was quite clear—over 90% supported the recommendation to restore the mechitza. It will be reinstalled on March 5, 2022.
Along the way to the congregational vote and afterwards, Zagha spoke with the leaders of the many different Orthodox institutions in the area to advise them of the process underway at the shul. As he recounted, the response he got was clear and consistent: “What you are doing is very important and we support you.”
As the current shul rabbi, Robert Pilavin, is slated to retire within the next year or so, the shul has mounted a rabbinic search to bring in a new rav with strong credentials in the Orthodox world. Leff said that Rabbi Pilavin has been a strong supporter of this change in direction. When asked for his view of the shul’s transition, Zagha quoted from a recent dvar Torah by Rabbi Pilavin, who said: “Our shul is going back to its roots, to better serve the community as it stands today.”
Their goal for the new rav will be for him to maintain the welcoming nature of the shul, engage with current members, and increase the membership, by drawing in young observant families moving to the area. As Leff stated, “We are looking for a visionary and a doer.”
Leff pointed out that there are many aspects of the Manalapan area that make it attractive both for a new rav and to young observant families seeking a place to build a family: real estate that is more affordable than similarly sized options in North Jersey and New York; nearby schools such as the Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville and Hebrew Academy in Marlboro; the presence of Chabad of Western Monmouth County and a Kosher Experience in the ShopRite in Marlboro; and an existing community eruv.
Congregation members are excited by the new energy this change of direction has given the shul. “This is a phenomenal move,” said Beth Krinsky, a member for 49 years. “It will bring a very different community to our shul and will keep the congregation alive and vibrant. I’m excited by this change.”
Said Kramer: “We get to help build the future of the Jewish community in Manalapan. At the same time, we get to expand on Sons of Israel’s reputation as one of the most welcoming institutions in the area.”
“I’ve been delighted to work with Bonnie Leff and the other leaders at Congregation Sons of Israel (CSI) and witness their selfless passion for the shul,” said Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, director of Jewish career development and placement at Yeshiva Universitiy’s RIETS. “The transition that CSI is undertaking is part of a small but growing trend of synagogues in other streams moving to Orthodoxy, to secure their future. The leaders at CSI have approached this change with a remarkable level of research and communal engagement. I look forward to seeing the next chapters of CSI’s history being written, as a proud shul within the warm embrace of the Orthodox community of Monmouth County.”
By Harry Glazer