“It’s been a 20-plus-year journey and we are almost there,” noted Rabbi Mendel Solomon, executive director and spiritual leader of Ahavat Torah—Chabad at Short Hills, as he discussed the near completion of the new Chabad building. Solomon spoke enthusiastically about its great location on South Orange Avenue, at the corner of White Oak Ridge Road. The location is so convenient that residents of the Poets, Deerfield and Hartshorn sections of Short Hills can walk down the street to the new location from the local side streets.
Solomon said that when the 4.2-acre corner property on the main road became available, he “seized the opportunity and it is a dream come true.” He continued, “It’s been a struggle in a positive way; having your own building changes the dynamic and we’ve had tremendous support from the community. The long exciting journey worked out.”
He added, “The geographic location is a perfect spot to accommodate the greater Short Hills community as well as the parts of Livingston that are far from the other shuls.” Additionally, the new location is in close proximity to Saint Barnabas Medical Center and “will be able to offer a place for all those who are in need of a local shul to daven,” as well as provide housing and meals if needed. Saint Barnabas has a bikur cholim room and Shabbat elevator, “and for families who are there over Shabbos and Yom Tov this is a very helpful new addition.”
Rabbi Solomon also pointed out that part of the new property is already within the eruv, and his plan is to eventually have the eruv expanded to incorporate the property in its entirety, as well as the surrounding vicinity.
Offering thanks to Hashem and everyone involved for staying committed, Solomon said that they will soon open the large and accessible new building.
The philosophy Solomon practices is to use outreach so that every type of Jew feels welcome in what he calls “a heimishe extension of home.” At their most recent tally, the Chabad at Short Hills is home to 200 member families, with many others affiliated in some way.
“The response has been tremendous,” said Solomon of his kiruv approach. Frequently, on Shabbat, women will come without their spouses or children, simply to fulfill their own spiritual needs.
Solomon acknowledged that it has been “a tremendous undertaking.” Besides the construction costs, for which there is a $3.8 million capital construction campaign with 2/3 committed and $1.3 million to go, the initial $3.5 million purchase price was made possible with a down payment from the sale of the current properties on White Oak Ridge Road.
The shul closed on the purchase of the new property in May of last year, and held a groundbreaking during Chanukah. The community is responding and very involved, according to Solomon, and committee members are working on various aspects of the construction phase and security features.
“The structure ended up being gutted, demolished to the studs and almost made into a brand-new building,” Solomon noted. Plus, “the outside alone will cost half a million dollars,” he added, and will include new landscaping and lighting. To encourage a love of Yiddishkeit among the children, one donor funded a $100,000 playground.
Seeing the need for all aspects under one roof, Solomon is pleased with the space and potential for future growth. The building is being constructed to offer “a home atmosphere, not just another institution.” Currently, the plans are coming to fruition with offices, classrooms, a library/conference room, shul sanctuary, teen lounge and rooms for women’s and men’s groups. The newly refurbished building will also include an event space to be used as a social hall, with the capacity to accommodate 200. Rather than for outside rental, the newly constructed social hall is intended for use for simchas within the community.
At present, they rent space at the local JCC to house their Chabad Hebrew School, which has 100 students enrolled. While they do not yet operate a preschool, they are looking forward to soon moving the Hebrew School into their own building. With plans to increase the programming, currently Solomon conducts services on Shabbat, Sundays and holidays, and runs community events and programming. In response to a great thirst for Jewish education from the adults in the community, they are busy lining up speakers for lectures, shabbatons and other educational events, including those prepared by Chabad headquarters, with great materials from the popular Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI).
Striving to bring Yiddishkeit and inspire participants to a higher level, Solomon admitted it has been difficult keeping up with the pace of growth over the past two to three years. While he still works on the administration, he has brought in professional help. Solomon credits his wife Chana for running the programming, doing spiritual counseling and education and facilitating the Shabbat meals. The couple is looking for the synagogue to be so much more than just a shul, especially for the children and teens. They want it to be a second home—
a full Chabad house. With that in mind, they offer clubs for teenagers; specifically, on site, they house the Kindness Club for sixth to eighth graders and CTeens (short for Chabad Teens) for ninth to 11th graders.
When pressed for a projected date of completion, Solomon replied that he expects the dedication of the building to take place in about three months. First, however, Solomon joked, “I tell people Chanukah, but I don’t tell them what year,” but then he stated, “Realistically, June.”
For more info, contact [email protected] or call 973-725-7008.
By Sharon Mark Cohen
Sharon Mark Cohen, MPA, is a seasoned genealogist and journalist and a contributing writer at The Jewish Link.