Synagogues all over the world celebrated Shabbat HaGadol the week before Pesach, but for Ohav Emeth in Highland Park, it really was a Big Shabbat.
Not only did the congregation celebrate 100 years since their founding, they held a Chanukat HaBayit of their beautiful, newly-remodeled building.
Approximately 300 member families joined in the celebration, which included festive Friday night and Shabbat lunch meals, davening with the a cappella group Six13 and a rousing concert after Shabbat followed by a dessert reception.
Of special note, the entire set of renovations was funded completely by generous donations. Although they took a bit longer this way, they did not require any loans or mortgages.
In lieu of the traditional journal dinner, meal attendees were treated to tableside serenades by Six13, gourmet food and glimpses of history and tales from the many decades of the congregation’s existence. In addition to current members in attendance, many former members who had moved away returned for the celebrations. Shabbat morning davening was followed by divrei Torah by both Rabbi Emeritus Rabbi Eliezer Kaminetzky and the present rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman.
Kay Burin, of Highland Park, came to the concert as Six13 is one of her favorite groups and she was looking forward to seeing them perform in person. Cheryl Amdur of Edison was thrilled her son wanted to attend. She was happy to support a community institution and listen to one of her favorite groups at the same time.
Congregation Ohav Emeth, or “O.E.” as it is known, was formed in 1918 in New Brunswick. Its full name was Congregation Ohav Emeth Anshe Ungarn (Lover of Truth of the Hungarians). When the majority of members relocated to nearby Highland Park, the congregation moved to the rabbi’s home in 1973 until the building at the present location, 415 Raritan Avenue, was purchased.
Originally built in the late ’20s, it was purchased virtually sight unseen by Herman Weisberger, who donated the building to the shul. Services were conducted from 1977 until 1984 in what is now the social hall. The congregation expanded the building in the mid-’80s to include a large sanctuary that more than doubled the building footprint. Since then, there have been remodels, upgrades and renovations to the social hall, sanctuary, building facade and bathrooms, all at different times. This major renovation was the first overhaul of the entire building in over 30 years.
The Renovation Committee, led by Norman Heyden and Michael Garber, included Eddie Braun, Sharon Garber, Sharon Heyden, Murray Katz, Rich and Sue Kollmar, Rafie Miller, Moshe Weiss, Yitzy and Barbara Weiss, and Rabbi Kaufman. The Fundraising Committee consisted of Michael Garber, Norman Heyden, Jack Atkin, Alan Bork, Rich Kollmar and Rabbi Kaufman. Others included the current president, Jay Dobin, and recent past presidents Steve Deutsch and Jeremy Safran. Despite many obstacles typical of major renovation efforts, the Renovation Committee never wavered on their commitment to complete a magnificent renovation and beautification of the entire building.
Stained-glass windows, each a different work of art depicting the great miracles of Jewish history and heritage, have been installed in the main sanctuary in nine large windows representing a Chanukah menorah. Custom-built glass ner tamids (eternal lights) have been installed in the beit medrash, social hall and main sanctuary. Custom-built mechitza panels for the main sanctuary and beit midrash have also been designed for the shul, with reflective panels with images of the Kotel maximizing the women’s view within the framework of halacha, while blocking the view from the men’s section.
The most breathtaking feature of the renovation is the centerpiece of the shul: a newly beautified Aron Hakodesh built around the original Aron Hakodesh, which was lovingly and artistically crafted personally by Martin Mermelstein, z”l, a Holocaust survivor and devoted long-time member. His wife, Regina, and children commissioned a new extension and beautification of the Mermelstein Aron Hakodesh with Jerusalem stone imported from Israel to surround the Aron Hakodesh. New woodwork and backlit stained glass windows depicting the creation of the world enhance and memorialize the original woodwork.
Ohav Emeth has always been a leading religious and civic-minded organization, with members serving both the United States and Israel in times of war, the shul serving as an active election polling location for many years and hosting leading rabbinic authorities. One of their proudest moments was when they opened the building to the community during the two weeks that most of Highland Park was blacked out from Superstorm Sandy. They are proud to have hosted the rabbis of the Highland Park kollel for the past 12 years, and continue to do so. As one of the great centers of Jewish life in the Highland Park/Edison community, they have numerous well-attended daily and Shabbat minyanim, as well as daily shiurim and classes, and sponsor well-attended youth programs and adult and family events.
For more information about Congregation Ohav Emeth, visit www.ohavemeth.org.
By Deborah Melman