June 12, 2024
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Paterson: Home to ‘The Little Shul That…Can!’

Many would be surprised to know that Paterson, New Jersey, is host to a functioning Orthodox shul, and that the official name of the congregation is “Paterson Shul.” The Jewish Link spoke with volunteer gabbai Jerry Schranz, and learned that the shul has recently completed some welcome renovations, just in time for Rosh Hashanah. According to Schranz, who lives in Fair Lawn and hikes over to the shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov, additional renovation is planned, and so far the improvements are already making a good difference.

Paterson Shul is housed in the basement of the newly renamed Seniors Tower of Paterson. Schranz reports that the building was purchased from the Jewish Federation, and is now owned by private investors and Fifth Commandment Foundation. Fifth Commandment is a non-profit whose mission, fittingly titled, provides seniors with quality independent housing that accommodates important needs, allowing them to age with dignity, explained Schranz. Currently 39 Jewish residents live at Seniors Tower, a building with 142 apartments. The building and wait list are open to all those who qualify, regardless of sex, race or religion.

The new owners, represented by Max Kaufman of Joined Management, ensure the good care of the residents. The building has a calendar full of social events, yoga, knitting club and a pool table. Under the new management the building has undergone a major renovation, with dedicated space for socially distanced gatherings and an aviary. Schranz said that the staff are warm and friendly, providing seniors the ability to live independently, “like nowhere else.” Some kosher food is provided as well.

Founded around 1972, the shul’s longest-standing member is 91-year-old Bill Brown, a lifetime resident of Paterson. Many of the shul’s devoted “minyanaires” walk from Fair Lawn, Elmwood and other nearby communities. Brown jests that if they can walk from miles away to make the minyan, the least he can do is commute from his seventh-floor apartment! On the more serious side in an interview last week, Brown reflected, “The synagogue brings me closer to God.”

Schranz also noted that while the pandemic turned everyone’s lives upside down, the Paterson minyanaires maintained contact with the residents. Some brought meals, some made erev Shabbat phone calls and, said Schranz, “We came back when the medical guidance and clearance was announced. We buckled down, wore masks and made sure that all the major holidays had minyanim. We relocated the aron and set up socially distanced seating outside of the synagogue room. With Rosh Hashanahh 5782 approaching, each of the 39 Jewish residents in the building will receive a care package of familiar traditional fruits, honey and items to brighten the chag.”

As the shul prepares for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the chagim, the number of men within the building has dwindled from almost 10 to 4. They have also had a hard time finding a Ba’al Korei. On the upside, people walk to the shul from Fair Lawn and Elmwood Park to serve as the chazzan and Ba’al Tokea, recite Yizkor and Hallel, etc.

Because the minyan is such a small gathering, everyone present has something to contribute from opening the aron, to an aliyah, and reciting the prayers for the state of Israel, the IDF soldiers and the government, noted Schranz. The shul has even hosted life-cycle events such as bar mitzvahs and an upsherin.

Asked to describe the mission of this unique shul, Schranz responded, “The shul is (a) most important place to gather, daven, pay respect with Kaddish and a very moving Yizkor. The shul keeps Jewish life in Paterson alive, and assures that the people who live upstairs…are not forgotten.”

An essential message, said Schranz, is that Seniors Tower and Paterson Shul offer an affordable alternative for many seniors 64 and over who are financially challenged to live modestly and comfortably via the Section 8 low-income-housing option, minutes from Fair Lawn and Passaic. Seniors Tower has much to offer for families considering a future option for parents or grandparents who don’t want or need a nursing home or assisted living facility. At the Seniors Tower they can live independently and affordably, minimizing the financial burden on them or family and, he adds, “with a built-in shul!”

The shul has no “official rabbi,” and Schranz, in his six-year role as gabbai, maintains an Orthodox, slightly modified davening experience customized to the needs of the seniors. “We have a mechitza, a washing station for the Kohanim, a bimah, an aron that was built in the 1970s by two of the residents and a kiddush kitchenette, so that the aroma of the cholent brings the residents down to the shul…”

The shul includes many unique members, among them 103-year-old Riva Katsenelson from the Ukraine, who speaks Russian and Yiddish. She brings a list of Hebrew names for mi’shebeirach, wearing a sparkling dress and matching tichel. Schranz describes her as “…something out of the movie Yentl.” Listening to the davening, she uses a Russian-translated siddur and Chumash. Then there’s Roma Fish, 75, from Mariupol, Russia, an avid reader of The Jewish Link. Immigrating to Israel in 1959, he joined the IDF in 1964, serving in the 1967 and Yom Kippur wars as an explosive expert dismantling landmines. Fish is the Shamash, sets up for kiddush, knocks on doors to beckon others to the minyan and helps roll the Torah for weekly Torah readings. Aaron Cohen says that the shul is convenient, allows him to Duchan and enjoy the spiritual space. He assists others to follow the page numbers and, according to Schranz, “Aaron is the first in many years to read both the Haftorah and some of the Torah portions.”

You can learn more about Paterson Shul on their website (www.PatersonShul.org) and on their Facebook page (The Paterson Shul). The shul is a 501(c)3 entity, so donations are tax deductible.

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