Moshe Hezrony, the new rabbi at Congregation Anshei Roosevelt, is not really new. He has been serving the 50-member shul for more than four years, commuting about once a month from Canada to Roosevelt, the historic borough that started out more than 77 years ago as an experiment in cooperative living.
Putting an end to this hectic travel schedule, Hezrony, 47, made a commitment this past Rosh Hashana to move his family, including wife Sivane and their six children, to New Jersey. While assuming full-time status at Anshei Roosevelt, he will continue as CEO of Cookeyah, the Montreal-based software firm he founded and which specializes in on-line security.
Interviewed in the synagogue on Nov. 16 — the same day Roosevelt held its annual open studio tour (see related article)—the Israeli-born, Chabad-trained rabbi told NJJN his goal is to rebuild Anshei Roosevelt to a position of prominence in the community.
“This year, we have invested $60,000 renovating the building, which originally opened in the mid-1950s,” he said. “We have a new roof, new carpeting; we repainted, and we have a new kitchen and new bathrooms.”
Hezrony also expressed pride in his congregation’s two-month-old kosher food bank program. “We started collecting in October, and we’re already delivering food to a client list of 40-50 families, not only in Roosevelt, but throughout the surrounding area. Right now, there are about 100 pallets of packaged food here awaiting distribution. All the work is done by 15 volunteer members of the shul, most of them Roosevelt residents,” he said.
“We have an active Hebrew school, and — although it has just three children enrolled right now — our overall education effort is serving 13 adults as well,” Hezrony said.
The rabbi said Anshei Roosevelt will hold a Hanukka celebration on Sunday, Dec. 21. “It will be an open house, with all visitors welcome,” he said.
Hezrony said the congregation’s plans for 2015 and beyond call for events such as fishing and boating competitions — there are three lakes in or near Roosevelt — and a general sports day. “One of our members is a professional coach in many different sports,” he explained.
“Rabbi Hezrony is the most selfless, generous guy I’ve ever met,” said Ron Gale, the synagogue’s president. “He never took a fee when he was on a part-time basis, and he still doesn’t receive a salary now that he’s here all the time.”
Gale said Hezrony even paid the expenses personally when he and his family were shuttling back and forth between New Jersey and Canada.
“Things started looking up for us when he arrived,” Gale said. “We had hit a low with just 35 members, but now we’re at 50, and there is a sense of growth and excitement.”
Gale, 63, has been a part of the synagogue for virtually his entire life. He remembers when the membership included such Roosevelt luminaries as Irving Plungian, a former fire chief and mayor, and members of the Klatskin and Kaplan families. Rabbi Herbert Bialik held the pulpit for a short time before he went on to Congregation Agudath Achim in Bradley Beach, where he was the religious leader for over four decades before retiring last year.
Anshei Roosevelt “came into being before I was born,” said Gale. “At first, it was an Orthodox synagogue. Then, from the early 1980s until about 2005, with most of the older members gone, it started to look more Conservative. There was some mixed seating, even though some people chose to sit separately.”
In 2005, Yeshiva Me’on HaTorah began to rent the building, and with it came some controversy. By 2011, the yeshiva was gone, moved to Monsey, NY, following clashes over whether it was violating zoning laws; there had been accusations that it was using a building intended for a single family as a dormitory for students.
“While the yeshiva was here,” Gale said, “we had an arrangement under which the school faculty provided rabbinic leadership.”
Today, although the congregation is unaffiliated, Gale said he would call it Orthodox.
Hezrony, however, said he prefers the word “traditional.”