Remember when you were a kid and you went to the doctor for your annual checkup? The part you were most interested in was how much you grew. When it comes to Judaism, those who spend a year studying in Israel recall that as their peak. While many still yearn for that magical atmosphere when growth was palpable, retaining it is simply not possible as other responsibilities kick in. Well, the goal of the Young Israel of Fair Lawn (YIFL) is to recreate that time of spiritual growth while also reconciling the realities of working/family life.
In 2013, Rabbi Eli Belizon and his family moved to Fair Lawn so he could serve as the head of a kollel in Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah. When the family went house hunting, the rebbetzin was drawn to a house in the vicinity of YIFL. R. Belizon began periodically davening at YIFL. “I had heard about YIFL and went occasionally for convenience reasons. While there, I developed a relationship with the people who also came to my shiurim at the kollel.”
Those shiurim left a deep impression on the listeners, including Larry Kraut and Jack Mermelstein. Kraut, who was one of the founders of YIFL, said, “Many of us had the opportunity to sit and hear his [R. Belizon] shiurim as well as the opportunity to talk with him on various topics.”
At this time, YIFL barely had a minyan. The congregation had gone years without a rabbi. A change was needed. So in September of 2014, R. Belizon was hired. Kraut and Mermelstein were confident about the hire: “We were convinced that his [Belizon’s] feelings and principles reflected the goals of the YIFL and that the shul would grow in numbers and in learning with him as our rabbi.”
As Eitan Lipstein was walking home from shul in June of 2014, he was considering what he was going to say to his wife, Lauren. The couple, along with their children, were the first young family to move to YIFL other than the Belizons, who were in Israel that summer. “We didn’t get a minyan till 9:20, and part of me wondered, ‘What did we do here?’” Lauren was less worried, and also reminded her husband that they were renting. After Shabbos, the couple received a call from R. Belizon. He told them not to worry and that the shul would grow. “R. Belizon has a passion for growth, and when he commits himself to something, he throws himself in,” said Eitan.
“Where are you going to move?” is a question that people in Washington Heights ask of each other often. Avi and Stacey Zanjirian had answers. “We wanted a community that has an element of learning, wants to help a family grow together and understands that people have to work,” said Avi. The Zanjirians also were ready to work to make such a community a reality. “We wanted to be very active in our community and have the ability to shape and mold it,” said Stacey. The couple ended up at YIFL after meeting R. Belizon while they were living in the Fair Lawn Commons. “R. Belizon had an idea and a vision, and felt YIFL members were supportive and the community would grow,” said Avi, who serves as the shul’s president.
And grow it has. The shul went from zero young families when the Lipsteins moved in to 35. One of the most recent families to move in is the Isaacs, Noah and Ayelet, who wanted to be part of a community that was sincere in wanting to grow in their avodat Hashem. The couple was convinced to move after they visited for a Shabbos. “During seudah shlishit, all the men were there and R. Belizon gave an amazing shiur,” said Noah. “The camaraderie was evident.” Ayelet felt good vibes from the women, which were validated the Shabbos the couple moved in. “The women lined up to meet me and made me comfortable. I’m a very social person, and it’s reassuring to have people around who are on a similar religious level.”
The growth that YIFL is striving to be known for is directed toward all members. R. Belizon said, “We have programs for everyone—people of all ages and levels—so they can connect to Hashem.” As part of that initiative, YIFL, which is now home to approximately 90 children, has been growing its youth department. “We hired a youth director this year so the children have the environment they need on Shabbos,” said Avi. Stacey said of the children, “They all have a nice sense of camaraderie and play together. The sense of belonging extends to the children.” According to Eitan, who is the assistant principal at Moriah middle school, the education of the children happens in informal ways as well. “When the children come to seudah shlishit and see everyone helping clean up, it’s an example of being part of a community.”
While YIFL has seen rapid growth, it’s still a small shul and retains a close-knit feeling. People look out for each other and are eager to help the shul thrive. “The people are so sincere, want to get to know you and help you feel part of the community,” said Noah. According to R. Belizon, this feeling and the shul’s growth comes from each family. “Everyone who has come here, along with those who were here prior, adds something and brought in others who do the same. It’s God’s hand that brought us here and allowed the shul to grow.”
We live in busy times, with distractions beckoning us at every turn. At YIFL, R. Belizon is striving to help his congregants “navigate the complicated world we live in and still stay connected to God. When we are davening we can shut our eyes and let our neshamos fly sky high.” Growth can and does continue in the warm confines of YIFL.
By Larry Bernstein
Larry Bernstein and his family are Bergen County residents. Larry is a freelance writer for hire. Visit his website: http://larrydbernstein.com/ to learn more.