Congregation Beth Sholom began with a vision: the establishment of a Conservative congregation in Teaneck where members would be bound together not by religious ideals alone but by a spirit of warmth and friendliness, as well.
In the summer of 1951, 16 families met with Cantor Barry Schaeffer and his wife, Idelle, to lay the groundwork for a new congregation. The first official meeting was held on September 26, 1951, followed by a second meeting a few weeks later where a certificate of incorporation was signed. The congregation rented quarters at 202-204 West Englewood Avenue and members pitched in to make the space presentable.
By October 1951, the congregation numbered 48 adults, and 30 children were registered in the religious school, conducted at Cantor Schaeffer’s home. In November of that year, the Constitution and By-laws were adopted and Cantor Schaeffer was hired as the rabbi. The first High Holiday services were held at the Bergen Junior College on River Road in 1952 and an advertised feature was the Beth Sholom choir of 20 voices conducted by Idelle Schaeffer.
As the congregation grew, the need for more space was apparent. The buildings on Rugby Road occupied by Christ Church were purchased in July 1953 and dedicated on June 5, 1955. The church was renovated as the synagogue, and adjacent buildings were used for bar mitzvahs, social events, and as an auditorium. A nearby house was used as the rabbi’s study, library, and classrooms.
By 1962, the congregation had again outgrown its facilities, and the original church community building was replaced by the structure which houses the Albert M. Shulman Auditorium, classrooms and office space still used today.
Longtime members look back on the Schaeffer years as a time when music and spirituality went hand in hand. Rabbi Schaeffer was not only a congregational leader and a scholar; he had a great voice as a hazzan. He and his wife, also a musician, trained a homegrown choir. As a result, Friday night services and the High Holidays radiated the joy of Judaism through song. Music was the secret source of the warmth and sense of community that permeated the congregation.
The Schaeffer years also saw the establishment of organizations and traditions that have continued to enhanced the character of the congregation and enriched the lives of its members. Early in its history, a Ladies Auxiliary was organized. The Auxiliary, like its successor, the Sisterhood, sponsored social and fundraising activities like bazaars and rummage sales, fashion shows and mall events, Purim parties and square dances, book reviews and holiday programs –all to support the congregation.
The first male-only get together took place in November 1953, where franks, beer, and soda were served to 80 attendees. A Men’s Club was soon organized, and it, too, has been a mainstay of Beth Sholom. The Book Sale of thousands of new and used books became an annual event.
During Rabbi Schaeffer’s tenure, the congregation began to move toward becoming egalitarian. First, the Shabbat morning bat mitzvah was instituted, although the girl’s father was given the aliyah to the Torah and recited the blessings. Brides were called to the bimah to accompany a groom for his aliyah. Soon girls read the haftorah on the anniversary of their bat mitzvah services, as the boys did. But the process of becoming fully egalitarian would not be completed until the 1980s.
With the retirement of Rabbi Schaeffer in 1979, the congregation chose as his successor Rabbi Kenneth E. Berger, a young, energetic graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary. As head of a congregation already imbued with the idea that Jewish law was dynamic, never static, the new rabbi, with the approval of the Beth Sholom leadership, introduced changes that were to revitalize the synagogue.
Although women had always participated behind the scenes, they only gradually assumed roles in synagogue governance. In the 1970s, women were elected to the Board of Trustees and in 1983, Marian Kugelmass became president, the first female president in any Bergen County Conservative congregation. As women became more visible in secular matters, they pressed for fuller participation in the ritual life of the shul. Rabbi Berger held educational meetings to discuss the role of women and a parallel egalitarian service was established in 1981. Between 1981-1984, women were called for aliyot on other than their B’not Mitzvah days, began to participate in leading various parts of the service, and, finally, were counted in the minyan.
- The Young Couples club, renamed the Couples Club, was instrumental in attracting new members.
- A Hesed Committee was established to help members at the birth of a new baby, a temporary illness, death in the family, or at other difficult moments.
- The adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah program, begun in 1989, is an intensive two-year course of study in synagogue skills and Jewish practices and beliefs culminating in a special group ceremony.
- Other adult education traditions have included monthly Shabbat Lunch and Learn lectures given by congregation members; an annual family Shabbaton drawing on the extraordinary abilities of congregation members; Bible study groups and Talmud classes led by the rabbi and other scholars, as well as a variety of special lectures and discussion sessions.
- The Scholar-in-Residence program invites distinguished lecturers to spend Shabbat with the congregation.
- A refurbished and revitalized Library, founded in 1963, enables members to enjoy new Jewish fiction, biography, history, and theology. Under the direction of a volunteer professional librarian and assistants, some 4,000 volumes are available for young and old.
Organizations that lend support to special groups within the congregation:
- The Bella Rashin Russian Jewish Club has met the needs of the Russian community and attracted new members.
- Hazak gives those 55 and over an opportunity to share common interests and engage in cultural and social activities.
Special programs for young people:
Always central to the life of the congregation was the Jewish education of its children.
- For almost 35 years – until the opening of the Solomon Schechter Day School lessened the need– our religious school grew and prospered with an enrollment of more than 250 during its peak in the 1960s.
- Kadima and USY offer teens and pre-teens exciting informal Jewish educational and social activities.
- Children were also involved in Brownies and Scouts.
Music still sounds as an inspiration for the congregation, bringing joy and beauty to services and special events during the year with:
- TAVIM, an a cappella group for adults
- Tzipporei Shalom, a young children’s choir
- The Russian chorus
The past 65 years saw enormous growth. The original 16 families became more than 400, and by the early ’90s the need to expand the physical plant again was apparent. In 1994, planning began for a new, larger sanctuary, additional programming facilities, and accommodations for the handicapped. Dedicated committee members launched the Beth Sholom 2000 campaign in the spring of 1996 and in May of 2000 construction began. Several items from the old sanctuary, home to the congregation for more than 45 years, were preserved in the Heritage Room in the new building. With song, prayer, and the good wishes of lay and religious leaders, the Lewis Family Sanctuary was dedicated on September 3, 2001. In 50 years, Beth Sholom expanded from a storefront to a 380-seat sanctuary complex with youth programming space, a new multi-purpose room, handicapped accessibility, and a much-needed facelift.
In 2007, Congregation Beth Sholom and Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley merged to form a stronger, even more vibrant and active synagogue serving the communities of Teaneck, Bergenfield, New Milford, Dumont, and more.
In 2009, Rabbi Berger announced his retirement and he remains as Rabbi Emeritus. Rabbi Barry Schlesinger served as Interim Rabbi until Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky joined as permanent rabbi in 2011.
Today, in its beautifully renovated building, with an expanding professional staff and increased volunteer involvement, the vibrant and committed membership of Congregation Beth Sholom looks forward to maintaining its tradition of adhering to religious ideals in a warm, friendly spiritual environment. We invite you to add your voice to ours!
Congregation Beth Israel was first organized in 1927 by a handful of families who had settled in the area as the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center. In 1948, Congregation Beth Israel built a commanding structure on North Washington Avenue in Bergenfield, which would be its home for nearly 60 years. The building was further expanded in 1955 to accommodate the rapid influx of Jewish families into the area.
In 1984 tragedy struck. A faulty furnace caused a fire which destroyed the entire building. The congregants were devastated. Services continued to be conducted in make-shift and borrowed premises.
Meanwhile the dedication of the members was not tempered. A new facility, completed in 1987, reflected the commitment of the membership and paid homage to the synagogue’s history, enabling the Congregation to grow and attract new families.
The congregants, young and old, always sensitive to the needs of the local Jewish population, formed steering committees to chart the course of the Congregation into the next millenium. It was recognized that young Jewish families moving into the surrounding Northern Valley towns, such as Closter, Cresskill, Demarest, Haworth and Tenafly were interested in making our Congregation their home. As a result the Congregation was renamed Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley to reflect the wider area that we now serve.
Three rabbis proudly served at Congregation Beth Israel. After serving the Congregation for 50 years, Rabbi Jerome Blass retired in 1998 and became Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel. Rabbi Lawrence Troster succeeded Rabbi Blass, and in September 2004, Rabbi David Bockman joined the congregation, serving through the merger process.
Holocaust Memorial Torah
Our Holocaust Memorial Torah was dedicated during Yiskor services on Shavuot, June 4, 1987. The Torah mantle was designed by Miriam Stern Chernick. Stephen Weinstein designed the Torah case, which was installed in the synagogue and moved to its present location in the current sanctuary. The case and dedication plaque may be found on the left upon entering the Lewis Family Sanctuary.
Used twice a year, during Yom Kippur services for the processional and for dancing with the Torahs during Simchat Torah, it was received from the Memorial Scrolls Trust, Westminster Synagogue, London.
The Torah comes from a town called Svetla nad Sazavou in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, 45 miles southeast of Prague. There was a Jewish presence in the town starting in 1654, and in 1921 Jews made up almost 5% of the total population of 2,261. Most were merchants, peddlers, and manufacturers of plum brandy. They were quite affluent, and one member, Isak Morovitz, owned the local castle.
The synagogue was built in 1889. By 1933, the Jewish population had decreased to 89 people as many had moved to larger cities. The Jewish population was surprisingly active in community affairs: three members had positions on the City Council, and one, Dr. Alfred Weinstein, served as mayor of the town.
The entire Jewish population was deported to Theresienstadt in 1940. From there many went to Poland and eventually to Auschwitz. None survived, making the mantle inscription—from a piyyut recited during the Neilah service on Yom Kippur—even more poignant¹:
…and there is nothing left—only this Torah…
For more information on rescued Torahs and their locations, please go to http://www.memorialscrollstrust.org/scroll-holders/.
¹ Historical Information provided by Dr. Fred Hahn, historian
Congregation Beth Sholom | 354 Maitland Ave., | Teaneck, NJ 07666 | Tel 201-833-2620
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Congregation Beth Sholom
354 Maitland Ave.,
Teaneck, NJ 07666
© Congregation Beth Sholom
Website by Agile Digital Solutions, LLC