Fifty years ago, a few Jews living in Lawrenceville decided to create “a wonderfully open space where everyone would feel comfortable, no matter how they thought about religion personally,” said Paula Sass-Donnelly, speaking by phone from Santa Fe, N.M.
The new congregation, which they named Temple Micah, soon negotiated a one-year agreement with the Rev. Dana Fearon and the trustees of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville to hold services in their sanctuary — an arrangement that continues today and enables Temple Micah to charge yearly dues of only $300 a family.
To the congregation’s founders and leaders throughout its history, this affordability has been critical to maintaining the openness that is so important to them. Larry Leder, a member for 26 years, board member for 15, and president for three (2013-16), admitted that the synagogue “could not have survived in our present business model without [the church] housing us and their support for us.”
Temple Micah will celebrate its 50th anniversary at a Havdalah service and reception, with music and dancing, on Saturday evening, March 23.
Rabbi Ellen Greenspan, religious leader from 1991 to 2012 and now rabbi educator at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Shalom in Montreal, told NJJN that Temple Micah is “a synagogue for people who, for whatever reason, can’t find a community elsewhere that fits for them — whether they don’t like the idea of supporting a big, huge synagogue, or like the idea that it is a synagogue without a building, or, in the case of the many intermarried families, who find it very nonthreatening; it doesn’t belong to any movement, so there are not a lot of requirements.”
The congregation meets monthly for Friday night services and Saturday mornings only for b’nei mitzvah; its religious school meets one afternoon a week. Still relatively small, with about 120 families and 90 students, Temple Micah has been growing and will have 16 b’nei mitzvah this year and 20 next year.
The current rabbi, Elisa Goldberg of Philadelphia, attributed this growth to the close fit between Temple Micah’s approach and the needs of many of today’s Jews. “It never wanted to be a big, full-service synagogue. It is a great community, but not a full-time community. It allows families to be engaged Jewishly in ways they want to…. They don’t necessarily want the synagogue to be the center of their lives, but one of the centers.”
Many synagogues offer a “warm and welcoming” community, but for Temple Micah, that trait is central to the congregation’s self-understanding. Plainsboro resident Ray Wolkind and his wife learned about Temple Micah via an advertisement for High Holiday services 35 or 40 years ago. They initially found it “a little strange” to be “in a church, not a synagogue,” Wolkind said. “But the members were very warm to us — it’s what made us feel really good to go there. We joined, then started going to synagogue on a regular basis and sent our kids there to school.”
Strange as it may be, sharing a building with the church has provided a context for mutual learning and support. The two congregations have shared seders and other events, and have come together in times of pain. After the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last October, Jeffrey Vamos, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, asked for permission to join Temple Micah’s vigil. “My heart sank for all Jewish people, especially in America, but also especially for the people who are our brothers and sisters in Temple Micah,” he said.
After Greenspan left in 2012, Rabbi Vicki Tuckman took over, but three years later, the much-beloved rabbi died from cancer at the age of 45. Leder attributes much of the congregation’s growth over the last six years to Tuckman’s “magnetism, her personality, her substance, and style. She was a unique and powerful leader.” Under her tutelage, he said, the number of religious school students doubled.
Tuckman also drew into the leadership circle a contingent of younger members, including the current president, Ivy Cohen, and her vice president, Holly Kotler, a religious school parent. Leder said, “The leadership of the temple for a long time were all people who had been there for many years and were in their 60s and 70s, and even though they were vigorous, that’s not the same thing as having people in their 30s and 40s who assume leadership positions.
“We needed that infusion of energy, of vision, to ensure the existence and sustainability and growth of Temple Micah.”
Losing Tuckman was tough. Princeton resident Adrienne Rubin, who has served as cantorial soloist at Temple Micah since the late ’90s, has provided constancy through the leadership changes, from Tuckman to Rabbi Roni Handler, who held the pulpit for two years, to Goldberg. Rubin said, “It is hard when you lose someone you love, but I think we are a strong community, and the fact that we did make it through [Tuckman’s death] and other leadership transitions is a real telltale of how people in this community care about each other and care about having this specific type of home in central New Jersey.”
Temple Micah has had to adjust slightly to the demands of growth. Although still largely dependent on volunteers, about three years ago they hired an administrator, Jennifer Byrnes, who works five hours a week, and about a year ago promoted Sue Weiner from religious school teacher to director.
On the cusp of turning 50, staff members and congregants alike were eager to brag about their community.
Goldberg said she loves being rabbi at Temple Micah. “People are there because they want to be there. The level people want to be engaged intellectually and spiritually is wonderful.”
Hopewell resident Judy Livingston, a past board member who has been part of Temple Micah for over 30 years, said, “I think what I like best about the congregation is that it’s just heimish. Nobody is showing off at the service. It’s like we just came together to sing, to say prayers, and to be together.”
For Rubin, what’s important is that Temple Micah meets people wherever they are. “The Jewish home at Temple Micah doesn’t presuppose anything,” she said. “I think that that warm and welcoming environment is why we’re at this milestone, our 50th anniversary.”
If you go
What: Temple Micah’s 50th Anniversary Celebration and Havdalah Service
When: Saturday, March 23, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: Suggested admission begins at $50, $25 for children, with contribution and journal ad options available
Information: Contact 609-921-1128 or firstname.lastname@example.org