The first time I visited Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan, New Jersey, Rabbi Robert Pilavin handed me a letter written by the renowned posek, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz. The letter rested inside a book Rabbi Schwartz wrote during his short tenure at Sons, in the 1950s. Decades later, in 2007, I received semicha from Rav Gedalia Dov, and today, I serve as rabbi at his former congregation.
A lot has changed at Sons of Israel since the 1950s. After Rav Gedalia departed, the shul moved to its current building and removed its mechitza so men and women could sit together in services. The synagogue boomed in the 1980s and 90s, filled with families and weekly simchas. Yet, in recent decades, membership has declined dramatically. Now, people miss the days when the shul was filled with families.
Our congregation is not the only synagogue that has struggled in Monmouth County. Yet, some Jewish organizations in Monmouth have thrived, as have other Jewish communities throughout New Jersey. This past year, I was recruited to Sons of Israel by dedicated shul members who saw the writing on the wall: take major action, or Sons won’t have a viable future. When I visited Sons, I saw the potential not only to reinvigorate the synagogue, but to build a welcoming community and center of Jewish life. I envisioned kids running in the shul, just like I experienced in my previous shul in Portland, Oregon.
One of the major decisions our congregation made prior to my arrival was to reinstall our mechitza (see https://tinyurl.com/yuu5vfj5). Members have decided to return to our Orthodox roots and chart a new path forward, with a deeper connection to the energy of a young, thriving Orthodox movement. In addition, we initiated another change. This month—as we rebrand the shul—we are updating from our “Sons” name to “Congregation Bnai Israel,” a Hebrew version of our name meaning the “children of Israel.”
As I shared with our congregation on Kol Nidrei, the Hebrew word, “bnai” is inclusive of both the “sons” and “daughters” (banim and banot) of Israel that have always been integral to our community. But given the urgent issues our synagogue faces today in connecting with a new generation, why focus on a name change?
Ever since Sons of Israel was founded by immigrant farmers in 1917, our shul was a natural home for local families. Just ask our congregant Alan Brooker, who marked his bar mitzvah at Sons with Rabbi Schwartz, in 1958. Alan took my photo in front of the very same Aron Kodesh where he stood as bar mitzvah. This Aron—dedicated in 1920, by the “daughters of Israel”—is displayed in our synagogue foyer.
Yet, to reach Jewish families in 2023, a new approach is needed. While in past decades, families showed up to town and voluntarily joined the shul, these days even self-identified Jews are less likely to join a synagogue. That means that synagogues like ours need to proactively build a center of Jewish life where people of all backgrounds can find a personal, meaningful connection with Torah and mitzvot. A full-service synagogue with a dynamic family-oriented program can meet the spiritual needs of modern Jews. What’s more, it can provide our vital need for community in a disconnected age.
A welcoming Orthodox synagogue can be a lifeline for people of all backgrounds. We need to develop multiple portals that allow local Jews to connect, like our recent coffee Kiddush for women or our men’s night with scotch and sushi. From BBQs to online learning to Shabbat dinners, we need to engage with local Jews in and out of the building.
As we strive to connect with today’s Jewish community, nothing is more important than communications. And nothing is more central in our communications than our name. In the coming months, our synagogue endeavors to launch a sustained communications effort that will bolster Jewish identity in Monmouth County.
We need to communicate with every means at our disposal, as we share our message far and wide. As we do so, it’s vital that our name sends a clear message that all Jews—men and women, elders and tots—have a stake in this congregation. Our updated “Bnai Israel” name—which means “the children of Israel”—does just that.
Our new tagline—the Orthodox Synagogue for all Jews—highlights our belief that a community Orthodox synagogue can be a place where people of all backgrounds connect with the mitzvot and the Jewish people. As we plan for a stronger future, our rebrand and name update are a vital foundation for communicating with a new generation.
And our message is already resonating (see https://tinyurl.com/44fczh3d). There has been nothing more refreshing to my ears than the sounds of tots talking straight through my sermon, or seeing kids run through our halls at our Chanukah party, engaged in Shabbat preparation at our challah bake, or experiencing the shul mobbed with families and kids at our recent Purim Bash (see the news story, in this week’s issue).
As we take steps to modernize our synagogue and meet Jews where they are today, I feel the spirit of our immigrant founders smiling upon us from above. We hope our synagogue will grow as a stronger resource for Jewish community and connection in Monmouth County. As we work with local partners to strengthen our area, we will collectively welcome more people into the embrace of their greater Jewish family.
Ken Brodkin is rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel (www.bnaiisraelnj.org) in Manalapan, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @rabbikenbrodkin or contact him at [email protected].