Teaneck—It has been said that in order to survive, people and institutions need to reinvent themselves. You can certainly see that when you look at the world of celebrities, like Madonna or Joan Rivers, Tony Bennett, Al Franken and others who changed their lives to remain relevant. L’havidil elef havdalot, to make a clear distinction, the octogenarian Teaneck Jewish Center, Teaneck’s first Jewish house of prayer, is once again going to reinvent itself to serve the needs of its Jewish community. This coming Shabbos Noach, they will celebrate the fourth anniversary of transitioning from an ultra-traditional Conservative congregation into a Modern Orthodox shul with a mechitzah to match, and open yet another chapter as they consider how to bring the building and the community together to maximize potential for the benefit of all.
The Teaneck Jewish Center was established in 1932, when the need for a place to pray in town on the Yomim Noraim reached critical mass. Dr. J. Dewey Schwarz, Israel Doskow, Dr. N. Saviet and S. Stithres met and decided to pull together a minyan in Doskow’s studio on Elm Avenue. Seventy people showed up, and from then on, there were Kabalat Shabbat services every Friday night. The following year the congregation opened a Sunday school, and things began to grow so quickly they had to rent property at 780 Palisades Avenue, and then a place called the Square Circle Club House for the Yomim Tovim in 1935—because 400 people attended services, with Emanuel Green as the rabbi. In the 50s, the Jewish Center bought land from the Phelps Estate, which at one point consisted of 2,000 acres in the center of Teaneck, and started a firestorm. But once the building was opened, it was truly a central part of Jewish life in Teaneck.
The President of YU, Rabbi Samuel Belkin, who realized Teaneck’s potential as a Modern Orthodox community, sent Rabbi Judah Washer, a 1932 grad and YU musmach, to soften the ground for such a community. Washer arrived in 1953 and was there when the Center was at its prime. He was followed by Rabbi David M. Feldman, a scholar and medical ethics expert who also had Orthodox smicha.
The Center has been in financial turmoil for quite some time and has suffered the fate of many traditional Conservative congregations that have either aged out or become irrelevant to those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods. Struggling to attract new families, the demographics were changing as Teaneck became more Orthodox in the 90s and 2000s. The Center recently refurbished the building, fixing up the swimming pool, the gym and generally upgraded the physical plant, including the sanctuary. They went Modern Orthodox and put up the mechitzah under Rabbi Lawrence Zierler’s leadership, a YU/REITS musmach, who’s last Shabbat at the Center was Shabbat Bereishis. They had hoped to attract new members, but young families had already chosen their shuls and rabbis.
While they can no longer afford to pay a pulpit rabbi, the Center’s president, Isaac Student, sounds optimistic as he told JLBC that the Board is focused on keeping the doors open to the entire community, with an emphasis on the Modern Orthodox in Teaneck and surrounding communities like Bergenfield and New Milford.
By Jeanette Friedman