On quiet Cutler Street near the business district of Morristown stands Congregation Ahavath Yisrael, a white colonial home that has served a small Orthodox community since 1980.
“We’re probably the closest thing to an old-fashioned Lower East Side shtiebel within 50 miles,” said the synagogue’s president, Marshall Rovner, noting the heimishe environment.
Rovner, a medical consultant to pharmaceutical companies, moved to Morristown four years ago and became synagogue president two years later. He’s seeking to expand the congregation and provide a supportive and homey atmosphere for its membership.
“We’re open to anyone looking for an authentic traditional Jewish experience,” he said.
The synagogue has remained operational even after the board voted to close it in 2009, when the congregation was saddled with some $500,000 of debts and the building needed structural repairs.
“A cohort within the congregation stood up and said, ‘We are not going to let this place close,’” Rovner told NJJN on a Jan. 12 tour of the building.
Sure enough, a new board of directors took over, paid down the debt, renovated the wooden structure, and “helped stabilize the congregation and revenue stream.” From a financial standpoint, the synagogue is doing better now than it did before it was threatened with closure, according to Rovner.
He said the synagogue is ready for a new phase. “We are trying to take it to the next level,” he said. The intent is to make it a “boutique spiritual experience.”
The sanctuary — once the living room of the former private home — has seating for 30 to 40 men, and another 30 for women in a space separated by a mechitza to the right of the bima. Rovner said that some 12 to 15 men attend on a consistent basis on most Friday nights and Saturday mornings, as well as some guests and women.
Rabbi Yaakov Zirkind, a member of Chabad, serves as the congregation’s interim rabbi, and a search committee is seeking a full-time replacement. Rovner said because his synagogue is small, the leadership is able to serve the needs of the local community.
“We are eclectic,” he said. “It is not unusual to have someone here wearing a streimel standing next to someone in jeans and a baseball cap.”
Sometimes attendance figures are boosted by the presence of chasidim from Brooklyn’s Crown Heights or Borough Park. “They want to get out of the city for the weekend so they stay at a local hotel and daven at Ahavath Yisrael during Shabbat,” Rovner said.
He insisted “there is no tension at all” between those who are chasidic and those who are not. As a man who grew up in a “traditional Jewish household” in Allentown, Pa., he said, “I feel the term ‘Orthodox’ has a negative connotation, I don’t think people like labels. They are divisive. We are here for the community.”