Thirteen years can pass in an instant. Think about your children and how quickly they seemed to go from infancy to b’nai mitzvah age. As the big day approaches, parents often post on Facebook, “Celebrating so-and-so’s bar/bat mitzvah. Where did the time go?”
These are the exact feelings expressed by Rabbi Marc Spivak when discussing his tenure as the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Torah in West Orange. From his “infancy” in 2003 to the surprise “bar mitzvah” kiddush given in his honor by the synagogue on October 8 of this year, Rabbi Spivak has seen many changes as he and the congregation have grown together, and he cannot believe how quickly the years have passed.
Rabbi Spivak and his wife, Debra, first joined Ohr Torah for Shavuot, 2003. They returned bi-monthly until they officially moved to town just before Rosh Hashanah of that year.
What first struck Rabbi Spivak about West Orange was “the camaraderie of the town, the feeling that everybody gets along and works together to help the community grow.”
Living there for the past 13 years has only strengthened that feeling. “We have a very good relationship with all the shuls in town, and with all the people. We are committed to running events jointly with the other shuls in town.” These community events, he said, are “a good way to meet different people in both the shul and community.”
At the bar mitzvah kiddush, Rabbi Spivak gave a moving speech, summarizing the past 13 years. He reflected on the growth of the daily minyan, saying, “The dedication of the people who attend the minyan on an ongoing basis is something to be in awe of, and I truly believe it helps makes all of us better and stronger.” He continued, “I can’t tell you how much I have been blown away through the years walking through a major snowstorm to minyan, positive that I will be the only one there and finding these great individuals have already beaten me there by a long shot and are trying to shovel the door open.”
Since he started, Rabbi Spivak has noticed “interesting growth in West Orange. The Woodlands has exploded, with all the homes going to frum families. The Redwood side keeps getting more and more young families. Our shul has more than doubled in size since I started. From 70 some-odd families we have grown to 150 families today.”
He noted the physical growth of the synagogue in addition to the growth in its membership. “We now have a beautiful social hall that is sought after by many outside our shul for simchas. This year, for the first time, we had two High Holiday minyanim because we had so many people attending.”
Turning his focus to programming, Rabbi Spivak discussed the different shiurim that he gives each week. He noted that his classes have finished studying the Rambam and the Mishna Berurah, and are currently learning Daf Yomi. “I want people to understand what the Torah is all about,” he said, “and I want to help them grow.”
Along those lines, Rabbi Spivak is deeply committed to helping his congregants grow spiritually. “I try to recognize the point people are at in their lives and help them grow from there.” He believes that making them feel comfortable in synagogue is the proper starting point. “People need to feel comfortable, then they will come. That’s the beauty of Ohr Torah. We provide that,” he continued.
Rabbi Spivak believes that programming for all age groups is another key to helping people feel comfortable. “We have many young children in the shul. The kids’ groups are packed every Shabbos,” he said. “The challenge is finding the right programs that will appeal to everyone.”
Some of the synagogue’s programs have included the annual Cholent Cookoff, attended by many outside the synagogue’s membership; Murder Mysteries; an annual barbecue at the Spivaks’ home and the recent kiddush held together with Congregation B’nai Shalom to honor their joint crossing guard. “Events for all different ages and different interests allow for everyone to find a home at Ohr Torah. A shul’s primary role is a place to connect to God, but it is also a place where we bond together and create a large Jewish family,” he stated.
He recognized that the programming would not be possible without the many volunteers who spearhead the different programs and events. “What truly makes Ohr Torah special are the amazing people who give so much to it. I hear from rabbis all over how they can never find volunteers and, yet, here we are so blessed with so many people who give so generously of their time and talents, who have literally put thousands of volunteer hours to keep this shul running in the most efficient way possible,” Rabbi Spivak said.
Turning to the community in general, he noted that the beauty of West Orange is in its uniqueness. “Other communities are very different. There are lots of people and it’s easy to get lost. The beauty of West Orange is that people can be individuals. The town is very diverse and people can, and do, go back and forth between shuls. That helps keep the community bonded.”
At the kiddush, Rabbi Spivak took time to remember those who had passed away, memorializing them with his moving words. He also reflected on the communal davening for the recovery of many who had been ill, especially the children. “No one will ever know the amazing feelings inside when I see them now in shul playing.”
Looking ahead, Rabbi Spivak discussed upcoming joint programs intended to further bond the greater West Orange community. This year, Congregation Ohr Torah will be hosting a community-wide Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzmaut event. “I would really love to do more of that going forward,” he said.
Shifting focus, he concluded by mentioning his own family, which includes Debra and their two sets of twin boys, Yonatan and Yehuda, 14, and Eliezer and Ephraim, 12. Rabbi Spivak noted that the boys have recently or will soon celebrate their bar mitzvahs at Ohr Torah. The older boys were babies when the family moved to town; the younger two born not long after. Soon, all five Spivak men will have celebrated a bar mitzvah at the synagogue. Where did the time go?
By Jill Kirsch