Congregation B’nai Israel, the Conservative synagogue in Basking Ridge, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. At a gala on Feb. 6, 250 guests came to honor the synagogue’s founding members and the people who have ensured that it has prospered and grown since its establishment in 1990.
In the beginning, there were 25 families; now there are 270. Where the first b’nei mitzva class had eight students, this year’s has 37. The religious school at its start had a student body of 24; now it is over 200.
Maureen Joachim, the temple’s office administrator, was among the 175 people who attended the first meeting of potential members. “We got this letter asking if we would be interested in helping to establish a new congregation,” she told NJ Jewish News. “We live in Basking Ridge now, but we were in Millington then, and we didn’t even know how they had gotten our names. We thought we were out here all alone. I went to the meeting while my husband stayed home with our two kids. I was shocked to see how many people came — absolutely amazed.”
The 25 founding families each donated around $100 to cover the costs of establishing the new congregation in Somerset Hills. They hired Rabbi Chuck Simon on a part-time basis, and he conducted Shabbat services every second Friday, first in the basement of the Bishop Janes United Methodist Church in Basking Ridge, and then in an upstairs room at another church. High Holy Day services were held in local firehouses.
Joachim said the most active committee in the fledgling organization was “the schlepping committee,” the people charged with trekking with the “porta-ark” and Torah scrolls and other equipment to wherever the service was being held.
“It was a labor of love,” she said. “It was so much fun. The local churches were very generous, and we got to know so many people we otherwise wouldn’t have met.”
After five years, Simon, who also had a full-time position elsewhere, told the B’nai Israel folks it was time to part ways. They hired their first full-time leader, Rabbi John Schechter, who has been with the congregation ever since. The staff now also includes Cantor Shana Onigman, executive director Carole Klein, educational director Hilary Greenberg, and Weintal Preschool director Terri Crosbie.
Schechter had conducted the congregation’s very first service. He knew some of the founding members from an adult education course they participated in and he welcomed the chance to join up with them again when they were ready for a full-time rabbi. He said, “I’m delighted by the growth and the accomplishments of this group, and the diverse, welcoming, and dynamic congregation they created where none had existed.”
He said he still marvels at the pioneering spirit of the original members. Even those who left over the years went on to play a dynamic role in building up congregations in their new communities. And at B’nai Israel, the growth of the education programs and the high level of volunteerism among the members, he said, speaks “to the hunger for learning and the depth of community spirit that took root out here.”
Looking back, Joachim said, “It feels like it was yesterday. The time has gone by remarkably fast.” Her daughter, Samantha, who was part of the first b’nei mitzva class, is 27. But the friendships formed in those early, pioneering days, have stayed strong, and despite all the growth, Joachim said, the congregation has kept its “haimish” feeling.
The gala on Feb. 6 was wonderful, she said, “and one of the nicest things was having all these people saying ‘thank you!’ to us. It was really nice to know that they hadn’t lost sight of how it all started.”
At the event, a resolution from Basking Ridge Mayor Scott Spitzer and the Bernards Township Committee was read and presented to Schechter and the congregation in recognition of its 20 years. Schechter, congregation president Larry Rosin of Bernardsville, and the first president, Diane Newman of Basking Ridge, reminisced about the changes the congregation has undergone in those decades.
From those early years when they relied on the generosity of others to find space, the members have created a spacious home for themselves. It was accomplished in two phases: first, the administrative office and school building, then the sanctuary, which was completed 18 months ago. In addition to the Sally and David Weintal Preschool and the religious school for older children, the congregation has active adult education, social action, and youth programs, as well as men’s club and sisterhood events.
Joachim and her husband, Steve, were among the families honored at the event, together with other founders and sustainers of the congregation: Nancy and David Braunstein of Warren; Nancy and Bob Novack of Morristown; Susan and Scott Orshan of Millington; Rhonda and Hal Simoff of Bernardsville; and Beth and Jeff Berger, Julie and Andy Fately, Tina and Barry Levine, Brenda and Scott Miller, Diane and Chuck Newman, Beth and Steve Raff, Lynne (deceased) and Harold Small, and Sylvia and Leo Tzeses, all of Basking Ridge.