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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Rabbi Chaim Marcus

The Congregation Israel of Springfield Torah journal.

The Programming Guide cover.

For young couples and families looking to relocate to New Jersey, visiting Springfield has become a given. This beautiful community, nestled in northern Union county, boasts every amenity an observant family might need. At the center of it all is Congregation Israel, an Orthodox shul led by Rabbi Chaim Marcus. For many, the synagogue is what first attracted them, and what ultimately brought them back to stay.

Rabbi Marcus is proud of what he and the shul members have built, and excited for the future. “It is a beautiful thing to watch people discovering Springfield. We are a one-shul town, and that allows everyone to grow together and further as committed Jews,” he said.

The idea of a one-shul town is foreign to many who live in bustling Orthodox communities, where there is a shul on every corner and new ones starting every year. It might not work in all locations, but it certainly works for Springfield’s observant Jewish population.

“Since we have just one shul, everyone knows everyone,” Rabbi Marcus noted. “When people come for a Shabbos, they feel like they are already part of the community. The shul has a real community feel, and we plan to make sure that continues.”

Ben Hoffer, president of Congregation Israel, concurred. “We are a one-shul town with diverse groups of people who respect each other and the fact that they are not all the same.”

While many of the new families, which totaled nine in 2017, are younger, the shul has a place for everyone. Programming emphasis is on finding ways to unite the generations, and Hoffer is thrilled that the community has found ways to do just that.

“We had nine families move in this year, but I am even more proud about how the community runs,” Hoffer noted. “We introduced two really great initiatives this year: a Torah journal and our Setting Sights program guide. Both have been really successful.”

Rabbi Marcus echoed that sentiment. “We produced a high -quality Torah journal this year that included divrei Torah from all different perspectives,” he remarked. “We had pieces included from men and women in the community with all types of backgrounds and at all levels of observance. It was solely a product of the members.”

Hoffer agreed. “The Torah journal was written by a cross section of the community. It was professionally designed and published. It was great that we had so much participation.”

The program guide was another recent accomplishment at the shul. “This was a huge undertaking. It lists every single event that we are planning for the whole year: speakers, scholars in residence, women’s Rosh Chodesh shiurim, special programs. Everything had to be planned in advance so that the guide could be put together,” Hoffer said.

Both the Torah journal and the program guide were made available to members on Yom Kippur, with copies placed on seats in the shul, and both are posted on the shul website at congregationisrael.org.

In addition to these undertakings, the shul has instituted a program called NOATS (Night Out at the Shul), which is another avenue for maintaining the warmth of a small community even as the community continues to grow. The shul hosts programs specifically designed to get people who might not normally interact to do so in a meaningful way. Older and younger couples come out to enjoy an evening together and get to know one another.

“As the shul grows, it is hard to maintain that warmth,” said Hoffer. “We plan programs that help us keep that close-knit feel.”

The shul also holds Shabbat programs where different families sign up to host or attend a meal, with a community dessert held at the shul. “The groups are assigned at random; these types of programs help people go outside their comfort zone and connect with different people,” Hoffer commented.

To help new and established members connect further, the shul posts member profiles in the weekly bulletin, highlighting one family that is new to the community and another that may have lived there for 20 years or more.

Another important factor to which the growth of the shul and local community can be attributed is cost. “Housing in this area is appealing because Union county taxes are much lower than in some surrounding communities,” said Rabbi Marcus.

The shul has also partnered with the local yeshivas, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston and the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, in the community Bonim program, which is a community growth incentive program. The schools offer generous financial incentives designed to stimulate growth in and strengthen the local communities, and enhance the already-thriving schools. This program is available to new school families who move into the surrounding communities and affiliate with local Orthodox synagogues, which offer incentives as well.

“The Bonim program has been wildly successful,” Rabbi Marcus said. The partnership between Kushner and JEC and the communities has made a huge difference. The educational opportunities are drawing families in.”

In addition to the partnership with the local yeshivas, the shul boasts a robust youth program, with regular programming for children from preschool age to teens, as well as a camp program for children ages 2 to 4.

The Springfield Jewish community comes complete with a mikvah and eruv, staples in any observant community, as well as a number of kosher eating establishments, including a bagel store, Chinese restaurant and deli. The township is minutes from nearby Hillside, Elizabeth, West Orange and Livingston, and residents are able to take full advantage of the kosher options available in those communities as well.

For those who need to commute to New York, the city is a quick and easy bus or train ride from Springfield or neighboring towns.

For Rabbi Marcus, however, the most appealing thing about the community is its warmth, and he is eager to share that warmth with prospective families.

“Don’t take our word for it; come for a Shabbos,” he said.

For more information about Congregation Israel and the Springfield community, visit congregationisrael.org.

By Jill Kirsch