April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Joe Smith: Community Builder

Everyone is influenced by where they grew up. Some of us feel that influence to a greater degree than others. Joe Smith is one such person. Joe Smith, a founding partner of the architectural firm Studio 5 Partnership and president of the Young Israel of Fair Lawn, was born in the Bronx. Joe’s father (Leon Smith) was an art teacher at The Ramaz School for 25 years. Joe, who attended the school, says of his father, “He wanted me to be a yeshiva teacher. He felt this would help me because it wouldn’t conflict with the Jewish Holidays.”

But Joe wasn’t interested. He knew he wanted to be an architect from an early age, and his father, ironically, was his influence. Joe describes his dad as “very innovative” and a do-it-yourself sort of person. “My dad would do construction projects around the house. If the roof leaked, he’d go up on the roof and fix it himself, and I’d be the one handing him the hammer.”

These father and son fix-it moments planted a seed in the boy as Joe became a person who liked to build things and take them apart. When Joe announced he wanted to be an architect, his father was concerned. He cautioned his son, “Architecture is not a Jewish field,” worrying that the small number of Orthodox architects would make it difficult for Joe to remain observant. Joe’s father ultimately came around and supported his son’s professional choice. Joe says, “We’d talk on the phone every week, and he’d ask me, ‘What did you design this week?’’’

Growing up in the Bronx also influenced Joe’s vision of Orthodoxy. He said, “It was a brand of Orthodoxy that was very comfortable and tolerant of other Jews and not extreme.” Children were brought up to be part of the American culture and to interact without assimilating. Joe worries that many in the Orthodox community today see everything as “black and white and no grey.” He cautions people should not stay in an isolated community or “you will end up in ghettoes.”

Joe involves himself with the community around him. Since moving to Fair Lawn in the late ’70s in order to be closer to work (his firm was in Newark) and near New York and its cultural offerings, Joe has served on a number of town committees. These committees include the municipal parking committee and the planning board, which he served as chairman.

About the planning board, Joe says, “It was invaluable experience as an architect and as a member of the Jewish community.” He gained insight into the land-use process, what the community feels/wants to become in terms of development and redevelopment, and sensitivity to people outside of the observant community. Such knowledge and service to the community can prove instrumental when one may be trying to get a synagogue built or expanded. He says, “You have to give a little back, you can’t just take.”

Another way Joe has given back is in his role as president of the Young Israel of Fair Lawn. He has served in that role for nine years. While much of what he does at the small shul is behind the scenes, such as overseeing repairs and inspections, he also calls himself a “PR guy who welcomes people and lets them know the shul is a place for everyone.”

Joe’s involvement with the Jewish community does not end with the Young Israel. Throughout his career, he has had an interest and affinity for “building things that benefit the Jewish community.” Along with his partner Allen Weitzman, he has sought out commissions to build synagogues and done work for Jewish Federation. Some of their local clients include Solomon Schechter schools, Anshe Lubavitch, Yavneh Academy, Yeshiva Ktana (Passaic), Congregation Rinat Yisrael, Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, Beth Rishon in Wycoff, and Young Israel of Teaneck, to name a few. Joe says, “When an architect is hired to do a ritual building, he/she needs to have a certain personal understanding and knowledge of the background and rituals.”

Larry Bernstein is a freelance writer, blogger, and tutor. He and his family live in Bergen County. You can find his website at larrydbernstein.com. His blog address is memyselfandkids.com.

By Larry Bernstein

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