Saturday, January 19, 2019

Congregation Ahavas Achim of Highland Park recently hosted a gala barbeque to celebrate the burning of its mortgage. Families enjoyed the beautiful weather at the riverside picnic location in Donaldson Park for music, children’s activities and sports. Attendees enjoyed delicious picnic fare while the youngest children participated in activities with Tova Halpern’s Jumping Jelly Beans and older children played soccer, roasted marshmallows, played on playground equipment and had other games and activities with the shul’s new youth directors, Rabbi Kivi and Chani Neuman.

Seth Maza, son of shul members Avi and Lauren Maza, provided musical entertainment through instrumental pieces and serving as DJ. Picnic tables in the grove hosted a mix of long-time and new members, young families and empty nesters, and everything in between.

Ahavas Achim, the oldest synagogue in the county, was chartered in New Brunswick in 1889. After buying land for a cemetery in 1900, the first building was built on Richmond Street and a Sunday school opened in 1903. As the congregation continued to grow, the synagogue remodeled its building in 1911 and modernized in 1930. The shul dedicated a new sanctuary in 1961 and held services at that location until 1980 when congregants came back from their Yom Kippur afternoon break to find their beloved shul in flames from an electrical fire. The destruction left only a small part of the building usable, leaving the congregation to decide whether to rebuild or move to another location.

With the formerly large New Brunswick Jewish population moving out of New Brunswick, the congregation chose to relocate to nearby Highland Park where many of their members already lived. Housed temporarily in the Masonic Lodge on North Third Avenue, the congregation launched a campaign to rebuild on the corner of South First Avenue and Johnson Street. The congregation has called that location home since Shavuot services were held there in a half-completed building in 1989.

As the synagogue continued to grow, further expansion was needed and in December 2010, Ahavas Achim dedicated the Imre and Rachel Lefkovits synagogue, a $1.5 million renovation and expansion of the shul to include more usable space for the growing congregation.

President Jeremy Renna felt “blessed to see that so many of the people with the foresight to take on the mortgage to build in Highland Park are here today” to see its conclusion. He added that in 1986 there were only about 50 member families while there are over 300 full and associate members now with many young families ensuring growth for the future. He added that there are four generations active in the shul with people working together.

Milton Erdfarb, a member of Ahavas Achim “forever,” felt proud to be part of an organization in existence since 1889. The welcoming attitude of the membership embodies the name “Ahavas Achim” and exemplifies the shul’s mission.

Debbie Brown, a member of nearly 30 years, was among the 200 people celebrating the mortgage burning. As she was enjoying the beautiful weather and delicious food, she noted how much the shul has grown over the years, and commented that it is the vitality, progress and sheer numbers of the shul that help make it her home.

Congregational rabbi Steven Miodownik noted that the celebration was a testament to the vision of his predecessor, Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg, who was able to develop a leadership team in 1987 that shared his optimism for the future. “Not only are we celebrating the end of our financial obligations to the bank, we are also celebrating the simchas, shul events, Torah study and tefilah that the building has allowed us to host. With monthly financial obligations seen to, money raised will go towards programming for all ages, ways to inspire youth and maintenance.”

Rabbi Miodownik contrasted the location of the riverside event with tashlich, throwing our sins in the water and mortgage in the fire. Sponsors of the event were able to literally burn the mortgage. Rabbi Emeritus Rabbi Schwarzberg began with the first page as the Trampps classic “Disco Inferno” played in the background. Sponsors were called one by one to burn the pages of the mortgage while the remaining food was finished.

By Deborah Melman