When he was hired and started his pulpit in August, Manalapan’s Congregation Sons of Israel’s Rabbi Ken Brodkin knew he was in for one of the bigger challenges of his professional career.
The shul has a lovely, spacious building and a 96-year history as a traditional congregation in the Manalapan area. It has a core of dedicated, enthusiastic volunteer leaders who are happy to pitch in on behalf of the congregation. And it’s located in a beautiful and easily accessible area of Monmouth County.
The problem was that the synagogue’s membership had dwindled and the shul was not drawing too many people.
“My wife and I joined Sons of Israel (CSI) in January 2020 after my father passed away and I needed a place to say Kaddish,” local resident Noah Glyn told the Jewish Link. “My wife grew up in a Reform setting and I grew up Modern Orthodox. At the time as you know, Sons of Israel was traditional, so the structure of davening was something I was comfortable with but the mixed seating was something that my wife was comfortable with. Although we were only members for a couple months prior to COVID, we both grew very fond of the synagogue and the members, who were very welcoming and kind. At the same time, it was very obvious that change was needed because the pews were sparsely seated even prior to COVID. I remember Purim 2020 (which was one week before the state shut down) had such a small attendance for the Megillah reading; I’m sure part of that was due to fears of COVID but it still struck me how this large shul was really struggling.”
As the Jewish Link reported one year ago (Manalapan’s Congregation Sons of Israel Restores Mechitza and Orthodox Affiliation,” January 25, 2022), the lay leaders of Congregation Sons of Israel saw the writing on the wall and took a few critical steps to steer the shul in a new direction. They held a congregational vote to restore the mechitza, which passed by a very wide margin, and worked with Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, director of Jewish career development and placement at Yeshiva University’s RIETS, to bring in a new, younger RCA-affiliated rabbi who could help the shul write the next chapter in its proud history (the synagogue’s prior rabbi, Rabbi Robert Pilavin, retired in June).
The shul was blessed to attract and hire Rabbi Brodkin, who had served for 17 years as the rabbi of Congregation Kesser Israel in Portland, Oregon. In his prior role, Brodkin led the drive to relocate the shul to the center of the local Jewish community and to found Maayan Torah Day School. He also created and continues to record and disseminate “The Jewish Growth Podcast,” a weekly 12-minute talk on accessing Judaism and applying its timeless lessons in one’s personal life; the podcast is available on Spotify, iTunes, Apple, and other platforms. Brodkin and his wife Aviel, who is the general studies principal at Yeshiva Shaarei Tzion in Piscataway, have seven children and a granddaughter.
Talking with the Jewish Link, Rabbi Brodkin said that he was attracted to the position in Congregation Sons of Israel because he saw a real need locally for a community Orthodox synagogue that serves Jews of all backgrounds. He found a great spirit for community building among the leaders in the shul (he praises them as “such dedicated people”) and the shul building and local communal infrastructure is very conducive to the goal of connecting more Jews to their heritage.
Rabbi Brodkin, in concert with shul leaders and local partners like Rabbi Shalom Jacoby, program director of Monmouth Torah Links,and teacher and development director of Shalom Torah Academy, has already relaunched Friday night services and Sunday morning minyan, regularly attracting more than a minyan both days.
They’ve held a variety of programs that have drawn crowds from the community, such as a summer picnic that attracted over 100 people, a challah bake that drew over 50 women, a Thanksgiving weekend shul alumni gathering that brought in over 100 people, and a Chanukah program that drew over 150 people. Attendance at Shabbat morning services has increased over 33 % and often attracts visitors from other areas.
Rabbi Brodkin is also hard at work, developing initiatives to connect with local Jewish residents of many different ages and interests and with potential residents. These plans include a robust programming schedule, an expansion of the shul’s eruv into Englishtown and neighborhoods behind the shul, a rebranding of the shul, and hiring a program director.
It’s clear from a sampling of local residents who have connected with Rabbi Brodkin that he is generating a great deal of interest in CSI. “We are really fortunate to have a rabbi who is engaging with people of all ages and religious backgrounds,” said Bonnie Leff, chair of the search committee and one of the leaders of the effort to reconnect the shul to its roots in observant Judaism.
“My husband Mark and I were looking for a welcoming Jewish community to raise our two young sons in, and we found CSI at the perfect time,” said Emily Appledorf. “With the arrival of Rabbi Brodkin and his wife Aviel we were swiftly embraced with a familial feeling. We joined in September and could not be happier with the abundance of Jewish-focused activities we have brought our boys to, along with the educational conversations we have had with the rabbi and rebbetzin. We look forward to being a part of the growing young population in the congregation, in addition to continuing our own Jewish education. It also helps that the rabbi has a beautiful voice, which makes the services even more enjoyable to attend.”
“Rabbi Brodkin and Aviel have fundamentally transformed the shul,” said Glyn. “Of course, the mechitza has been reinstated, but more than that, they bring a tremendous energy to the shul, with more programming and a welcoming message. The message is that we are a shul for all Jews to grow, to learn, to make friends…in short, to be part of a real community.”
“Rabbi Brodkin’s game plan was to create an atmosphere of observance that is welcoming,” said Rabbi Jacoby. “Within less than six months, he’s enlisted strong allies in the shul, built a lot of momentum, and gained great support from local institutions. I thought this would take years to accomplish! There’s a real energy in the shul and the rabbi and rebbetzin are very well liked by more and more people. They are a tremendous success.”
“Our family has been at CSI since Rabbi and Rebbetzin Brodkin arrived and the shul is definitely moving in the right direction,” said Jonny Kersh, who works for Olami, a Jewish outreach organization. “The sense of community is growing, there are more children, it appears that the shul has really turned a corner. The changes in the shul have reinforced my optimism in Manalapan serving as a hub of Jewish life. Everyone senses that Rabbi Brodkin has a lot of energy; he’s an inspiration, a real role model, and he’s drawing people in.”
For more information on Congregation Sons of Israel and Rabbi Brodkin, visit their website at www.sonsofisrael.com
Harry Glazer enjoyed covering this story and invites suggestions of other significant news developments that merit news coverage. He can be reached at [email protected].