The now flourishing Congregation Ahavas Achim has weathered in-fighting, a dwindling membership, and a devastating fire since it began in a small building in New Brunswick 125 years ago.
Today the “warm and vibrant” Highland Park Orthodox shul boasts a growing membership, myriad youth programs, and a renowned adult education program.
“We have a lot of nice synagogues in town, but there is something very special about the services at Ahavas Achim,” said its president, Seth Berman. “We are known for our quiet services where people do not talk. Our services on Shabbat and even during the week are very special.”
He said that in recent years the shul had seen an influx of young married couples in addition to members who had been there many decades.
Its Ahavas Achim University, instituted by current religious leader Rabbi Steven Miodownik, brings in distinguished scholars and has been replicated nationally. Its Women’s Torah Institute invites women and girls to learn together.
The shul now has 250 full-time family units and 70 associate members. Staff includes a new youth director, Miriam Tennenbaum, and a teen board operating much like the synagogue’s adult board to “empower” young people to come up with ideas and events. Its teen minyan is led by young people.
“It is a sense of being part of a family that motivates people here to want to give financially, and more importantly give of themselves,” said Berman, a member for 17 years.
“We’re a warm and vibrant synagogue, a beautiful mix of all ages and backgrounds serving God together,” said Miodownik, hired as assistant rabbi and program director in 2000. He became full-time rabbi in 2006, succeeding Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg.
“What makes us special is our decorum during services, which we work very hard to maintain, and the respect we have for one another,” Miodownik said. “It’s a community people appreciate because of the learning opportunities.”
However, the current tranquility stands in stark contrast to its early years when a requirement in its constitution — “All members should be friendly toward each other” — was blatantly ignored.
The “Constitution of Ahavas” was written in 1888 for “Chevroh Ahavas Achim of New Brunswick” with its second paragraph stating, “The name shall never be changed.” It was incorporated the next year.
In 1893, the synagogue purchased two land parcels in Van Liew Cemetery in North Brunswick, and in 1900, bought its first building on Richmond Street from the Salvation Army. (The site, around the corner from Congregation Poile Zedek, is now a parking lot behind a townhouse complex.)
An article from the Sept. 28, 1897, New Brunswick Daily Times about the congregation’s Rosh Hashana services reported that 34 members turned out.
However, Milton Erdfarb, who researched the shul’s history for a video he prepared for its anniversary dinner March 30, said the same article also contained a clue as to why the friendliness mandate was included.
“The opposing forces of this congregation, which is now divided [held services that] were attended by 27 members,” stated the article.
Despite the discord, the synagogue continued to grow. It opened a Sunday school in 1903. That same year, however, the congregation made local headlines when a meeting over the selection of a new rabbi erupted into a brawl, which had to be quelled by police.
Press reports linked the fight to tension between two factions, one led by president Morris Adler, the other by a Bernard Fertig. During the altercation, Fertig was struck in the face with a club, losing several teeth.
Nine months later New Brunswick Daily Times reported that “the congregation is getting along nicely since Rev. M. Ratner became its rabbi.”
The Raymon years
The building was remodeled in 1911 and enlarged and modernized in 1930.
Ahavas Achim blossomed under the leadership of Rabbi Pesach Raymon from 1938 until 1984. Raymon, for whom the local yeshiva is named, became a nationally renowned figure and dean of Raritan Valley’s Orthodox rabbinate.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to Rabbi Pesach Raymon for his dedication to this community and building of the foundation that continues to be built on to this day,” said Erdfarb.
In 1961, after the shul’s largest renovation since the early part of the century, a new sanctuary was dedicated.
In 1980, at a time when New Brunswick’s once large Jewish population was leaving for the suburbs, religious leaders and congregants returned from the afternoon break on Yom Kippur to find their shul engulfed in flames from an electrical fire.
With only a tiny section of the building still useable, the congregation was determined to survive, said Schwarzberg, who became rabbi in 1986 and remains a member.
Deciding they needed to have more of a presence if they hoped to grow, leaders moved the congregation to the former Masonic Lodge on North Third Avenue in Highland Park.
There, Schwarzberg said, he and the congregation became active in causes from supporting Soviet Jewry to protesting genocides in Rwanda and Darfur as part of a belief that as “Jews we cannot be silent in the face of injustice or anti-Semitism.”
New programming and dynamic services attracted new members among the community’s growing Orthodox population. A campaign was launched to build a new synagogue on South First Avenue, where Shavuot services were held in 1989, although the building was only half-completed.
“It was a wonderful experience to see the rebirth of a congregation, and shortly after we celebrated our 100th anniversary,” recalled Schwarzberg. “The last 25 years for certain have been a time of rebirth and reorganization for a synagogue many has thought had seen its heyday and was going to disappear.”
In December 2010, Ahavas Achim dedicated the Imre and Rachel Lefkovits Synagogue, a $1.5 million renovation and expansion of the shul.