Congregation Beth Sholom began with a vision: the establishment of a Conservative congregation bound together not by religious ideals alone but also by a spirit of friendliness.
In the summer of 1951, sixteen families met with then Cantor Barry Schaeffer and his wife to lay the groundwork of the new congregation. A first official meeting was held at the Bryant School on September 26, 1951, followed by a second meeting on October 11. There the certificate of incorporation of Beth Sholom was signed, and reports were rendered by the Constitution, Membership, Building, Religious and Education Committees. The Congregation rented quarters at 202-204 West Englewood Avenue and members pitched in to do the painting and decorating needed to make the new headquarters presentable.
By October, the Congregation numbered 48, and 30 children were registered at the Hebrew and Sunday Schools, which were conducted at Cantor Schaeffer’s home. One month later, Nov. 21, 1951, the Constitution and By-laws were adopted and Cantor Schaeffer was designated as the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom. First High Holy Day Services, which began on Sept. 19, 1952; were held in the main auditorium of Bergen Junior College on River Road near Route 4. Tickets for members cost $25 per family or $12.50 per person. Non-members paid $30 per family. An advertised feature of the services was the Beth Sholom choir of 20 voices conducted by Rabbi Schaeffer’s wife Idelle.
As the Congregation grew, the need for more space was apparent. By July 1953, the buildings on Rugby Road, then occupied by Christ Church, were purchased, and by June 5, 1955, the new facilities were dedicated. The church was renovated as the new synagogue, and the adjacent buildings used for bar mitzvahs, social events, and as an auditorium. A nearby house contained the Rabbi’s study, library, and classrooms.
By 1962, the Congregation again began to outgrow its facilities, and the original church community building was replaced by the structure which houses the Albert M. Shulman Auditorium, the classrooms and office space still used today.
The Schaeffer years saw not only an expansion of facilities but also the establishment of organizations and traditions that enhanced the character of the congregation and enriched the lives of its members. Early in the history of Beth Sholom, a Ladies Auxiliary was organized. The Auxiliary, like its successor Sisterhood, sponsored social and fundraising activities – bazaars and rummage sales, fashion shows and mall events, Purim parties and square dances, book reviews and holiday programs –all to support congregational needs.
The first get together of the male members of the Congregation took place in the Social Hall in November 1953 – franks, beer, and soda were served to the 80 attendees. A Men’s Club was soon formally organized, and it, too, was a mainstay of Beth Sholom. The Book Sale of “thousands” of new and used books became an annual event. One early highpoint in Men’s Club history was a Men’s Fashion Show presented by “that wonderful store of fashions – Schlesinger’s”.
Central to the life of the Congregation during this period was the Religious School. For almost 35 years – until the opening of the Solomon Schechter Day School lessened the need for the three-day-a-week Hebrew School – the school grew and prospered. At its peak, in the late 1960s enrollment reached more than 250.children.
During Rabbi Schaeffer’s tenure, the movement from traditionalism to egalitarianism was begun. First, the Shabbat morning bat mitzvah was instituted, although the girl’s father was given the aliyah and recited the blessings. The bride to-be was called to the bimah to accompany the groom’s for his aliyah. Soon a girl was allowed to read the haftorah on the anniversary of her bat mitzvah, as was done for the boys. But the egalitarian process would not be completed until the 1980s.
Longtime members of the Congregation 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 to harmonize with him. As a result, Friday night services and the High Holy Days radiated the joy of Judaism through song. Music, under Rabbi Schaeffer, was the secret source of the warmth and sense of community that permeated the Congregation.
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 1970′s women were elected to the Board of Trustees and in 1983, Beth Sholom had a woman president, a first 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 at which the role of women was debated and discussed. 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 permitted to be counted in the minyan.
Other innovations included a Young Couples club. Later renamed the Couples Club, it was instrumental in attracting new young members to the congregation. A Hesed Committee was established to help members when crises arose: a time of bereavement, the birth of a new baby, or a temporary illness.
An adult Bar and Bat mitzvah program was begun in 1989: a two year intensive course of study in synagogue skills, Jewish practices and beliefs culminating in a special group Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Other adult education traditions were established: monthly Shabbat Lunch and Learn lectures given by members of Beth Sholom; an annual family Shabbaton consisting of three concurrent learning sessions; again drawing on the extraordinary abilities of congregation members; Bible study groups, Talmud classes, led by the Rabbi and other scholars, as well as a variety of special lectures and discussion sessions. Especially popular are the Scholar-in-Residence programs, which enabled distinguished lecturers to spend Shabbat with the Congregation, speaking both at Friday night dinner and Saturday afternoon following lunch, as well as during Shabbat morning services.
To reinforce the renewed interest in Jewish learning and literature, the Library, founded in 1963, was refurbished and revitalized. Under the direction of a volunteer professional librarian and assistants, the library enables Beth Sholomites to enjoy new Jewish fiction, biography, history, and theology. Some 3,000 volumes, including children’s books and books on Israel, are available for borrowing by young and old.
New organizations were started to lend support to special groups within the congregation. The Bella Rashin Russian Jewish Club has met the needs of the Russian community at Beth Sholom and has attracted new members to the synagogue. The congregation initiated a group for seniors, called Hazak, which gives those 55 years old and over an opportunity to share common interests and engage in interesting cultural and social activities. A Women Rosh Hodesh met each month to celebrate this festival with prayers and presentations led by members and invited guests.
Special programs were established for young people as well: Kadima and USY chapters offer teens and pre-teens an opportunity to join in exciting informal Jewish educational and social activities. Children were also involved in Brownies and Scouts.
Music still sounds as an inspiration for the congregation: TAVIM, an a cappella group; Tzipporei Shalom, a young children’s choir, and the Russian chorus all bring joy and beauty to services and special events during the year.
The Congregation grew in numbers as the years passed. The original 16 families have become more than 400, and the need to expand the physical plant became apparent. By 1994, planning began for a new, larger sanctuary, new programming facilities, and accommodation for the handicapped. Dedicated committee members launched the Beth Sholom 2000 campaign in spring of 1996 and by May of 2000, the old sanctuary, home to the congregation for more than 45 years, was demolished. Two Ner Tamid, a pew, and a stained glass window were preserved, along with other memorabilia, 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 fifty years, Beth Sholom has expanded from a storefront on Englewood Avenue to a 380-seat sanctuary complex with new youth programming space, a new multi-purpose room, handicapped accessibility, and a much-needed facelift. In this setting, the vibrant and committed membership of Congregation Beth Sholom looks forward to continuing its tradition of adhering to religious ideals in a warm, friendly spiritual environment.
In 2007, Congregation Beth Sholom and Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley merged to form a strong, vibrant, active synagogue that serves the communities of Teaneck, Bergenfield, New Milford, Dumont, and more.
In 2009, Rabbi Berger announced his retirement as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom. Upon his retirement, he will remain a leader of the synagogue as Rabbi Emeritus.