In an effort to attract young adults to Perth Amboy’s last surviving synagogue, a new group has been formed in partnership with Congregation Beth Mordecai.
The Young Jewish Professionals of Perth Amboy (YJPPA), which launched early last month, is open to adults 20-40 years old. It has already held a successful business card Shabbat networking event, funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, which has provided a grant to fund future networking events.
YJPA members have gone apple-picking and on Friday, Nov. 14, will join with the Highland Park Oneg Group for an event with a group of traumatized former Israel Defense Forces members who will be visiting the area in a program funded by federation.
The group was created by Stella Morrison and Nessa Madison, who moved into the city last year. Since then the group has grown to more than 20 as word has spread through its Facebook page, the synagogue website, and the grapevine.
“I’ve always been a firm believer in word of mouth,” Morrison told NJJN. “Two people reach two more. I think it fosters genuine interest and excitement. Friends are reaching friends. It’s growing organically.”
Morrison, 25, grew up in Edison and served as cochair of federation’s Super Sunday fund-raising event in 2011.
She was living in South Amboy when a friend told her about Beth Mordecai, “so I decided to attend and the story sort of wrote itself,” said Morrison. “When I decided to relocate again, Perth Amboy was the obvious choice of where I was going to go. A 10-minute drive is not the same as a 10-minute walk, and I missed that aspect of synagogue life.”
Morrison said she was also drawn by the small size of the Jewish community, its potential for growth, the town’s affordable housing, and a relatively easy commute to her proofreading/editing job in Brooklyn.
Madison, who moved to Perth Amboy with her husband, Joel, from Woodbridge, grew up in Highland Park. A sixth-grade math teacher in Roselle, she is helping to institute a “tot Shabbat” at Beth Mordecai — for members and the community — to be held on the third Saturday of every month.
“My husband and I want something to be there for younger children when we have a family,” said Madison.
She feels the city has a lot to offer young Jews looking for a community.
“I think Perth Amboy gets a bad rap,” said Madison. “Since we’ve moved in we have found this to be the most awesome place. We live next to a park, and there are kids running around all the time. We’re within walking distance of everything. My husband and I bike down to the [Raritan] bay all the time. In the spring and summer the temple has services by the bay. My neighbors in our townhouse complex are really friendly. We all look out for each other.”
However, it was the affordability and the Conservative synagogue itself that drew the young couple to Perth Amboy. “My husband is not Jewish,” Madison said, “and we saw on its website it is inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families.”
One of the linchpins of the program is a partnership between YJPA and the synagogue, allowing the group to host potential young members over Shabbat; other events are held in Morrison’s apartment.
“We look at this as an investment in rejuvenating Perth Amboy ,” said Beth Mordecai’s Rabbi Ari Saks. “Stella is using her extended network to get people to come check us out and draw people to our community.”
Much of the city’s once sizable Jewish population left for the suburbs in recent decades, forcing the closure of synagogues and the YMHA of Perth Amboy. Over the last three years, however, the 119-year-old Beth Mordecai has seen an increase in membership from 83 families to 115, who, Saks said, are a mix of young people and empty-nesters drawn in part by the shul’s low dues.
While the synagogue does not have enough youngsters to have a religious school, Saks serves as a teaching rabbi to families and works with each child individually.
“We are so excited that we have people at our synagogue who come up with ideas,” said Saks. “We can be cheerleaders and as a synagogue say, ‘Yes we can,’ and support and make our synagogue a voice of the community.”
He said, “The language we are using is that we want to share our unique Torah with one another. We see ourselves as a Jewish home for the soul wherever you are in Judaism.”
Other YJPA events being planned include social action projects, ice skating, and programs for Hanukka and other Jewish holidays.