May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Springfield Jewish Community Marked by Diversity, Rich History

Springfield–A warm community where they could make a difference was what Anya Bitansky, who relocated with her husband Eyal to Springfield ten years ago, said she found here. “We didn’t want to be lost in the crowd, so we looked for a smaller community. We wanted to be able to get involved and make a difference,” she told JLNJ.

At Congregation Israel of Springfield, the Bitanskys joined a diverse, multi-generational community of Jews–from yeshiva bochurim to Sephardim, to Ashkenazim, to those with no formal Jewish background at all, and everything in between. Congregation Israel has approximately 175 member families, and while only 35 miles from Manhattan and 30 minutes from Teaneck, still has that ‘out-of-town’ feel. “Everyone was so warm, so friendly. We’re all different kinds of Jews coming to shul and sharing the experience,” Bitansky added. The Bintaskys have four children and are actively involved at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in nearby Livingston.

“There is something nice about having [just] one shul in the community. There is something for everyone, young or old,” said Rabbi Chaim Marcus, the community’s mara d’asra for the past 13 years.

Congregation Israel, which includes a beautiful, state-of-the-art mikvah that was completed seven years ago, is the center of Springfield’s growing Modern Orthodox community in Union County, sandwiched between Elizabeth and Newark. Rabbi Marcus is credited by many for the community’s current growth. Marcus became Springfield’s rabbi in 2002, after serving as the congregation’s youth director and assistant rabbi under his predecessor, Rabbi Alan Yuter.

“If we didn’t have Rabbi Marcus here, it wouldn’t work,” said Dr. Leonard Bielory, a Springfield resident for the last quarter century. “He is personally an incredible individual that projects,” he said. “We always accepted everybody, we still do. But he comes from a very orthodox background himself. He bridges people who have no connection to Judaism. He is great in his outreach. He has his heart in the right place,” Bielory said.

Marcus grew up in Staten Island, where his father, Rabbi Jay Marcus, was rabbi of the Young Israel of Staten Island for 30 years. Marcus went to the Marsha Stern Talmud Academy (MTA) and studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion under the tutelage of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, before coming to Yeshiva University and receiving smicha at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). He teaches Judaics at Bruriah High School. The elder Marcus founded the Yeshivat Reishit in Israel, where Marcus and his brothers have also taught. Marcus and his wife Lea have six children.

Since Rabbi Marcus’ arrival in Springfield, the community has grown both in terms of the numbers of members as well as individual spiritual growth of many members. “Rabbi Marcus’ vision is to be a community built on a commitment to growth in Avodas Hashem, Limud HaTorah, Ahavas Achim and Midos Tovos,” said Ben Hoffer, another congregant. Hoffer credits Rabbi Marcus’ presence with the arrival of approximately 40 young families. A number of organized, structured incentive programs were offered to incoming residents over the years, which are now concluding, and the community has been involved in the well-known Orthodox Union’s Emerging Communities Fair, which works to match families seeking for affordable living options in orthodox communities, with synagogues needing help with minyanim and programming, in addition to other promotional and recruitment activities.

Marcus has many enthusiastic fans. “He is a good pulpit rabbi, and he gives a good shiur,” said Bielory. Bitansky also chimed in that Rabbi Marcus was also one of the main reasons her family relocated here. “For me and my husband, he is not only our rabbi; he is a friend and someone I can talk to who can give a good perspective on things. He is always there to help. I don’t know how he sleeps because so many people come to him for so many reasons.”

Bielory explained that Congregation Israel has historically been an inclusive place because it is a combination of many synagogues that have merged over time, in particular because of the suburban flight after the Newark riots of 1967. In 1968, Congregation Israel (of Newark) was formed as a combination of two synagogues (Knesseth Israel and Adath Israel/Mishnayes) that had themselves been merged many times over, encompassing synagogues that many community members may remember from days past: Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, the Isserman Synagogue, Anshei Russia (Rabbi Brodsky), Anshei Israel, Ein Jacob (1884), Chevra Mishnayes, Adath Israel, Ahavath Jacob, Agudath Achim, Woloczyska Benevolent Society, and Congregation Shomrei Shabbos (1882). The Young Israel of Springfield and Congregation Israel (Newark) formed in 1981 in Springfield, as Congregation Israel of Springfield. The yartzeits listed on plaques that hung in previous synagogues in the region are still honored today in the shul, Bielory said.

However, with all the rich history, Hoffer explained that Springfield has never been more vibrant Jewishly than it is now. “We have a kosher bagel store and a kosher Chinese restaurant. There is a Shoprite in town that has a kosher aisle, with kosher fresh meats, fish, dry, refrigerated and frozen items,” said Hoffer. “Families have the choice of sending their kids to a number of yeshivot, including the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. Both of these schools are approximately 15 minutes from Springfield,” he said.

“We love that Springfield has a small-town feel.” said Jennifer Cahn, who moved to Springfield with her husband Shmuel several years ago. “Everyone knows your name, and congregants show genuine interest. We also appreciate the fact that friendships develop across the religious and age spectrum. For example, it is not uncommon for women who wear pants to mingle with women who observe standard customs of tzniut. Also, some of our closest friends are a generation or two older,” she said.

In addition to running extensive youth events, bringing in speakers, programs and scholars-in-residence, Congregation Israel has a number of active committees that always welcome new participants. “Here, everyone is welcome, and everyone is treated like family. What is more, we offer unparalleled opportunities for religious growth and learning,” the shul says on its website. “Achdus (sharing concerns) is so important. It’s an important factor in what we try to do here,” said Bielory. Learn more about Congregation Israel at http://www.congregationisrael.org/.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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