Those of us who live north of the Jersey Shore area sometimes think that Jewish life, particularly observant Jewish life, does not exist in the state between our hometowns and Lakewood. Manalapan, New Jersey, begs to differ.
Manalapan, centrally located in Monmouth County between Highland Park and Lakewood, has been home to an Orthodox community for more than 100 years. Originally, Sons of Israel, a shul that came complete with an old-school women’s balcony, was the only Orthodox presence in the community. Twenty years ago, the shul, which had earlier re-affiliated itself as traditional, was joined by another religious mainstay, The Jewish Learning Center, which ran programs at Sons of Israel.
Rabbi Aaron Zisow, rabbi of Bais Torah U’Tefillah of Manalapan/Jewish Learning Center Community Synagogue and rosh kollel of the Kollel of Western Monmouth County, moved to Manalapan several years ago with eight families from nearby Lakewood to start a second kollel, focused not on kiruv but on Jewish unity. The kollel’s talmidim became so close with the Manalapan community members that outreach was the natural result, and many locals were inspired toward a more observant lifestyle.
Rabbi Zisow noted, “‘Accept and respect’ is our motto. We accept people for who they are, but we don’t push. We’re about education; if people want to become more observant, we will be there to support them, but we will not force anything.”
In addition to the JLC and the kollel, the Union Hill Congregation, entering its 34th year and helmed by Rabbi Hayim Leiter, is located just outside the Covered Bridge Adult Community, but serves people of all ages and at all levels of religious observance.
According to Rabbi Leiter, “People are appreciated here because everyone is needed to make the community. Everyone interacts warmly within our shul and in the broader community. All the shuls have a very nice relationship. There is a lot of ‘cross pollinating,’ meaning that people daven at different shuls at different times, and everyone is willing to help make minyanim wherever they are needed.”
Manalapan also houses Chabad Lubavitch of Western Monmouth County, led by Rabbi Boruch Chazanow. It has been in the community for more than 30 years and provides a shul, with davening three times a day and on Shabbat; adult, teen and children’s educational and community programs; a Hebrew school and a Camp Gan Israel. Additionally, the Friendship Circle of Central Jersey is run under its auspices and services over 100 children with special needs weekly.
According to Rabbi Chazanow, “There is a nice relationship among all the rabbis. Everyone has their niche here.” He continued, “Chabad’s focus is to bring Yiddishkeit to the local community. We want to inspire everyone on their level.”
The Center for Jewish Life, located in adjacent Marlboro and led by Rabbi Yossi and Dina Kanelsky, also serves the local Jewish community, offering Shabbat and Monday davening, a Hebrew school, teen programs, Torah classes and other events catering to specialized groups.
The community is proud to be home to several schools as well. Shalom Torah Academy is a K-8 yeshiva day school providing Jewish and secular education to children in central New Jersey. Yeshiva Tiferes Naftoli is a local yeshiva high school offering strong secular learning in addition to Judaic studies. The Talmudical Academy of Central New Jersey is a boys’ yeshiva high school and also a rabbinical college.
Rabbi Zisow related a story about the kollel’s recent dinner, at which all of the local Orthodox rabbis sat together on the dais, echoing Rabbi Leiter’s and Rabbi Chazanow’s sentiment that “all of the congregations are united.”
A community that once had very few observant families, Manalapan is now home to an eruv, mikvah (Mikvah Shalom, located on the premises of Shalom Torah Academy), kosher restaurants, kosher butchers, a Wegman’s with a large kosher section and ShopRite’s Kosher Experience, all of which are motivating frum families to move to the area.
Monmouth Torah Links, run by Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz, has been extremely successful in reaching out to the non- or marginally observant, offering programs, kollel learning, trips to Israel and an active Sunday Hebrew school program, taught by Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz, that caters to 200 public school children. Batya, a national program for teenage girls with a local chapter, offers support for girls who are looking for a more observant lifestyle, regardless of their starting point. NCSY continues to inspire yeshiva and public school teens alike, headed locally by Rabbi Shmulie Green. Chabad also runs a Young Jewish Families program, which focuses on offering services to “keep young families connected,” according to Rabbi Chazanow.
The greater Manalapan community houses several Jewish social service agencies and nonprofits as well. Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Monmouth County provides services intended to “enhance the quality of life for children, families and the aged in our community, while reflecting the shared compassion, ancient wisdom and unifying traditions of Judaism,” according to the organization’s website. The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, located in nearby South River, “brings together people, partners and resources to fill pressing needs in Jewish life locally and worldwide,” per its mission statement. Manalapan is also home to MIMEH, the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust, whose stated mission is “to explore the ethical implications of the medical transgressions that took place during the Holocaust for modern scientific theory, medical practice, health care policy and human rights endeavors.”
Longtime Manalapan resident David Rosenthal said of the community, “What is unique about Manalapan is that people run the gamut of observance—some are frum and some can’t even read Hebrew—yet everyone is close.” He strives to “get more people involved and into Yiddishkeit,” noting that “everyone is growing on their level and we just want to help others continue their growth.”
Rabbi Leiter agreed, adding, “We want people to feel comfortable. We want to help people get a little closer to each other and to God. Wherever they are, whatever their starting point, we want to make them feel comfortable and give them a real, significant connection to Judaism and to their past.”
“People sometimes have a fear of Orthodoxy and we want to dispel that. Our community has passionate, caring rabbis who want to share their love of Judaism with others,” said Rosenthal.
“Manalapan has all the amenities of a large Jewish community, but has a small-town feel. That makes it very special,” concluded Rabbi Leiter.
Maybe those of us “up north” should take a ride down the Parkway and check it out. The community warmly welcomes inquiries and Shabbat and/or weekday visitors.
By Jill Kirsch