April 8, 2024
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April 8, 2024
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The Maccabees and Manalapan, New Jersey

Chanukah heroes offer needed vision for community development in our times.

Last month, over 100 local Jews gathered for a family Challah Bake at our shul, Congregation B’nai Israel (formerly Sons of Israel) in Manalapan, New Jersey. I learned that many were making challah for the very first time.

One participant said preparing for Shabbat with the community stirred her to “rededicate” herself to lighting Friday night candles each week.

For a shul rabbi, this comment warms the soul. Our shul mission is not merely to run services; it’s to keep the flame of Judaism burning bright.

To be sure, we have faced adversity in our mission. In the 1960s, our congregation removed its mechitza. While this innovation helped build membership, it also had long-term unintended consequences.

Critically, shomer Shabbat families did not settle near our synagogue. By the 2000s, our once-thriving membership began a steady decline, a distressful trend for many dedicated members.

In response, our shul rededicated itself to our Orthodox roots, eventually reinstating the mechitza. In addition, the shul embarked on a program to revitalize Jewish life in our neighborhood, including my hiring in 2022.

On Chanukah, we celebrate the legacy of the Maccabees. These Hasmoneans could not stand the idea that the avoda (service of God) would diminish.

Likewise, our lay leadership at B’nai Israel could not abide the idea that the flame of our shul would extinguish. Many of our leaders witnessed their own parents—Holocaust survivors—rebuild Jewish communities here in the United States.

According to Rav Yoel Sirkes (a 17th-century halachic authority), the defining quality of the Maccabees was self-sacrifice. Our people were not physically threatened by Greek decrees against Shabbat and circumcision. Yet, the Hasmoneans believed the foundation of our lives was serving God.

Given their conviction, they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for mitzvot. Likewise, it has taken sacrifice to keep our shul’s flame burning. Every Shabbat morning, as I witness the efforts of our volunteers, I feel that Maccabee spirit of sacrifice.

Since launching our initiative, our shul has added to our weekly services an array of programs like “Pizza in the Hut” and “Falafel in the Park.” I meet new Jewish families at all of our events.

In truth, people need community today more than ever. We enjoy more access to knowledge and communication than any previous generation. Yet, we are also more isolated than ever before.

Therefore an event like our recent Challah Bake was a unique moment, as multiple generations benefited from being together. Young parents enlisted the help of our seniors to organize the event. One congregant, who grew up in our shul in the ’50s, remarked how moving it was to be surrounded by children in the shul he was raised in.

This winter, B’nai Israel will take bold action in rededicating our shul to the Jewish future. As we advance in our plan, we will be guided by three key lessons from the Maccabees.

The first lesson is the power of the individuals. Chanukah teaches us that a small number of people make an outsized impact. I’ve had the good fortune of living in Jewish communities around the U.S., from Boston to Houston to Portland, Oregon. In every kehilla, the impact of individuals is enormous.

In that light, I’m excited to announce that B’nai Israel will be recruiting select families to join us on the ground floor of developing our community. Currently, we’re seeking a baal kore (Torah reader) and part-time youth director. As we engage candidates to fill these and other roles, passionate individuals and their families will play a major part in building our community.

The second lesson of the Maccabees is the power of community. The Maccabees promoted great Jewish institutions, like the Temple. At B’nai Israel, as we engage more human resources, we will build a greater organization with the wherewithal to impact more lives.

We are primed to do this. Our 20,000+-square-foot building and adjoining Shabbat home are well appointed to serve the needs of a dynamic community.

Manalapan itself offers the dual quality of excellent access to major hubs like Lakewood, along with a welcoming out-of-town community environment.

Initiatives we are engaged in today are a foundation for a larger program that engages local Jewish youth. From our community Chanukah Bash to our upcoming Tot Shabbat program, we are laying the groundwork today to bring more Jews together tomorrow.

Thirdly, the Maccabees teach us the power of mitzvot. While Greek life centered around the gymnasium, Jewish life centers around serving God through Torah and mitzvot.

Likewise, shul is where the Ner Tamid glows—and that flame is a source of life. As one gentleman told me, B’nai Israel is a lifeline for his elderly mom, who looks forward to Shabbat at our shul each week.

As a shul, the centrality of Torah will always remain at the forefront of our vision. Women learning about tefillah with my wife, Aviel, at our recent “Coffee Kiddush” is just one of numerous infusions of Torah into our community.

Today, the Jewish people are experiencing a surge of unity and spiritual awakening. But for resurgence to take root, we need strong centers of community.

At B’nai Israel, we look to the Maccabees in our enduring commitment to strengthen and build the Jewish people. As we do so, the flame of mitzvot will shine brightly within our shul—and within the hearts of countless lives we touch.

Rabbi Ken Brodkin is the rav of Congregation B’nai Israel, Manalapan, New Jersey.

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