Marking their first holiday at Congregation Ahavath Yisrael in Morristown, Rabbi Avremy Raksin and his wife and partner, Shaina, set out to make Purim a spirited and joyful celebration for the community with a family-friendly party.
“We aren’t only tapping into the people who need to hear the megilla reading, but also some who might just want to be in a warm environment with other Jews, who might hear something spiritual while they are there,” said Avremy.
The Raksins, who grew up in the Chabad Lubavitch hasidic movement, took the helm of the synagogue, affiliated with the Orthodox Union, just over one month ago and are still catching their collective breath.
On a recent Thursday morning, they spoke with a visitor as they sat around the dining room table in their apartment near the Rabbinical College of America, the Lubavitch seminary.
Shaina, whose grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Herson, is the director of RCA, expressed delight at returning “home” to Morristown, living just a block from her mother and father and close to her grandparents. Before the move, the Raksins were both living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Avremy, who earned his rabbinical ordination at the Chabad Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights, said he is happy to try suburban living. The young couple — he is 29, she is 24, with two children, Levi, two, and Reeva, 14 months — glance at each other for guidance and finish each other’s sentences as they speak about their vision for Ahavath Yisrael, also known as the Cutler Street shul.
Founded in 1980 as an Orthodox minyan at the Conservative Morristown Jewish Center (now MJC Beit Yisrael), members moved their group of worshipers first to people’s homes and ultimately to the current location later that year. Operating on a shoestring budget, it long catered to 30 or 40 people living nearby, looking for a minyan for worship within walking distance, mostly on Shabbat.
In 2009-10, a rift developed as its aging founders planned to shutter the shul, while newcomers, mostly followers of Chabad, sought to keep it operating with Rabbi Yaakov Zirkind at the helm. The matter went before both a civil judge and a beit din, or rabbinical court, and the shul was ordered to stay open. It has continued operating, and in August 2013 welcomed a new Torah scroll commissioned by the congregation and written by a scribe close to home — the rabbi’s son, Moshe Ber Zirkind.
The Raksins, who were not part of the shul during this period, hope they are just what the community needs to move forward. “It took a tremendous effort to keep the shul open, and now we can focus on the future. We can take it to the next level,” said Shaina. The congregation maintains an open-door policy, and membership dues are on a sliding scale, set at $300, $600, and $900.
Although Shaina and Avremy were both raised within Chabad, known for its outreach-oriented centers in far-flung suburbs, they have no plans to change the synagogue affiliation. “There’s a really nice mix of people at the shul, and that’s the beauty of it. Anyone who feels they can’t fit in somewhere else will be fine here and will add an additional dimension to the congregation,” said Avremy.
They are now spending time getting to know their congregants. The congregation already has a sisterhood, regular minyans, and a website. They plan to add affinity groups for men, children, and teens and upgrade the website, as well as strengthen holiday programs, but not until the fall. “From now through the summer, we’re going to spend time thinking about what to do and how to do it,” said Shana. “Everything has to be done in the right time.”
Their mostly volunteer roles are, at least for the moment, a labor of love. To earn a living, Avremy has an on-line store selling third-party products (he declined to offer more specifics). He thinks having a regular job also makes him “more relatable” to his congregants. Shaina is finishing a degree in special education from Chabad’s Michigan Jewish Institute in West Bloomfield, most of whose students, like Shaina, take advantage of its on-line courses.
The Raksins’ guiding philosophy is happiness, which shows.
“When we make a party, like our Purim party, or a teen program, we share our joy and spread our joy,” said Shaina. “By sharing our life and sharing our happiness, we share our passion for Judaism.”
Avremy added, “We find strength in happiness. What God is looking for in our lives is happiness. It’s Adar now, when we traditionally add to our happiness, according to the Talmud. In Av, similarly, we diminish our happiness. But whether we diminish or add, it’s all about happiness. Our goal is to share our happiness with other people.”
Asked how they plan to advance that happiness goal, they looked at each other and answered, “It’s contagious.”