April 14, 2024
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Fair Lawn Community Growing & Attracting Young Families

Fair Lawn—When a company has a new product, marketing executives spend lots of time and effort on branding—defining what makes the product unique, different, and special. Then they promote the product to customers looking for those features. It even works for communities. Congregation Shomrei Torah of Fair Lawn embarked on an ambitious program in 2005 to brand itself and attract young families interested in a warm, comfortable community infused with Yiddishkeit and learning opportunities. Since then, 70 new families have joined. A Getting to Know You luncheon, held at Shomrei Torah on August 31, the Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah, epitomized the community’s success. Over 200 adults and 80 children came together to meet, mingle and learn. It wasn’t always that way.

When Rabbi Benjamin and Shevi Yudin came to Congregation Shomrei Torah in 1969 there were only 17 families. Over the next 20 years, the shul grew to 300 families. TheYudins loved the warm, close knit community but over time, people retired or passed away and new families weren’t coming in. ”We wanted to keep our vibrant community growing, ” said Rabbi Yudin. “Now we are very excited about the young families but it’s not just for young couples. There’s no generation gap here. All generations are connected through our programs. The resurgence of Fair Lawn is very rewarding. ”

William Hochman, a 30-year resident of Fair Lawn and former president, said that in the early 1990s, concerned members of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn faced the fact that their community was aging. Neighboring towns of Teaneck and Englewood were growing rapidly. “We weren’t marketing ourselves, ” Hochman recalls. He knew the congregation needed help.

In 2005, a group from Shomrei Torah, led by Rabbi Yudin, met with representatives of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future to develop a strategy for growing the community that became known as the Torah Enrichment Center (TEC). YU recommended that the community subsidize the rent of three couples who would move in, network with people they know and invite them for Shabbos to introduce them to Fair Lawn. Within two years, 16 new couples visited and moved in.

“My husband was instrumental in forming TEC and we are both so happy to be involved in the lives of so many young families, ” said Mrs. Shevi Yudin, the rabbi’s wife.

One of the first couples to come to Fair Lawn was Rabbi Elie and Rebecca Mischel. At the time he was a community development expert at Yeshiva University. “I was living in Teaneck but I wanted to be involved in a smaller community, ” Rabbi Mischel said. “I invited friends and acquaintances to spend a Shabbos with us and visited other communities like Washington Heights and Teaneck to tell people about Fair Lawn. We lived in a very nice apartment complex with a Friday Mincha/Maariv minyan and lots of gatherings. ”

“There are pluses and minuses to every community, no communities are the same, ” Rabbi Mischel said. “Fair Lawn has lots of pluses; it’s a short walk from the apartments to the train and an easy commute to New York City. It’s close to day schools and restaurants but smaller and warmer than other neighborhoods. What works for us in Fair Lawn might not work for others. ”

Part of Rabbi Mischel’s mandate as a consultant with the YU Center for the Jewish Futurewas recruitment. When Shomrei Torah was ready for the next phase of its growth, the formation of the Fair Lawn Shomrei Torah Beis Medrash, he suggested they hire Rabbi Eli Belizon as director. Rabbi Belizon and his wife Rebecca came on board about a year ago, along with four Beis Medrash Fellows—graduates of YU, and their families.

“I’ve lived in many places: Washington Heights, Eretz Yisroel, Teaneck, Far Rockaway, and I thought Fair Lawn was a beautiful place, ” Rabbi Belizon said. “It’s not too out-of-town and not too in-town. It’s very comfortable and we’re working to spread Torah through the community and create an even greater spiritual atmosphere. ”

Rabbi Yudin and Assistant Rabbi Andrew Markowitz give many shiurim and classes in the shul and at people’s homes. In the past year, the Fair Lawn Beis Medrashhas expanded the offerings to include chavrusas, chaburas and one-on-one learning. Tuesday evenings, Rabbi Belizon gives a shiur later archived on Yutorah. org. He just began a new Thursday night Schmooze with Divrei Torah and singing. To prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the inaugural topic was Divrei Hissorrus—words to encourage a spiritual awakening. Rabbi Belizon emphasized that while Shomrei Torah has spearheaded the Fair Lawn Beis Medrash, members of other Fair Lawn shuls are welcome and encouraged to participate.

Young families moving to Fair Lawn are drawn to all the resources the Torah Enrichment Center and Beis Medrash have put in place. Ari Ashkenas said he was familiar with Fair Lawn as his wife grew up there. When they were ready to leave WashingtonHeights, they looked at some of the bigger communities and decided Fair Lawn was a better alternative. “We wanted someplace fresh, where we could be leaders and have an impact. Fair Lawn is a growing, young community—and it’s an affordable area in an expensive area. ” He and his wife visited friends who had moved here and fell in love with it.

The charm of Fair Lawn as a warm, welcoming community drew Nehama Cohen Zofan and her husband Dori in July of 2010, when they decided they were ready to leave Washington Heights. They also knew Fair Lawn through relatives living there but looked at some other communities first. “I’m from Montreal and my husband is from Columbus, Ohio, ” Zofan said. “We wanted a smaller, tight-knit community where we could make an impact. ” The Zofans jumped right in, buying a house two months before her baby was due. “I gave birth Erev Yom Kippur, and didn’t know anyone. The bris was on the first days of Succos and people I didn’t know made meals. ”

Mrs. Zofan credits Rabbi and Shevi Yudin and Rabbi Andrew and Sara Markowitz with leading the community and making everyone feel comfortable. Both couples have worked tirelessly to make Fair Lawn a welcoming place for new families and integrate them with established ones.

The luncheon held this past Shabbos officially welcomed 35 new familiesand was promoted as both a ‘Getting to Know You’and ‘Bridging the Gap’ luncheon. Rabbi Andrew and Sara Markowitz, along with Mrs. Shevi Yudin and a dedicated committee of volunteers, planned the program to ensure there would be lots of mingling. Everyone who came got numbers for two tables, one for the main course and one for dessert. The kids, ages 1 – 10, ate upstairs in a children’s section, where parents could supervise their meals, and then leave them to beentertained by a magician and looked after by babysitters.

Oren Hiller, president of Shomrei Torah, kicked off the luncheon by acknowledging that it was crazy to do such an elaborate program before Rosh Hashanah, but that it showed their commitment to integrating new and established members of the community. Before sitting down to the main course, everyone got a sheet with “ice-breaker” questions like “When did you and your spouse first meet?” Or, “What brought you to Fair Lawn?” The seating was randomly arranged so that there was a blending of ages, old friends and newcomers. Rabbi Markowitz said someone came up to him later to tell him they had a great time, they didn’t need the questions, but it was a thoughtful gesture. After the main course, there were instructions to remove the top table cloth, and a freshly set table awaited a new set of occupants for dessert. Here, a new sheet was handed out with Fair Lawn/Shomrei Torah trivia questions like, “Which shul couple met in first grade?(Answer:Rabbi and Shevi Yudin). Rabbi Markowitz said that at the end of the luncheon, everyone was asked to see his wife, or one of the other organizers, and pick a name out of a bag—the names of all attendees were there—and invite that person over for lunch in the next two months.

“Someone mentioned to me that he had been in the shul for forty years and this was one of the nicest programs he’d been to, ” Rabbi Markowitz said. “When the lunch ended, no one wanted to leave.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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