The Jewish Center of Teaneck (JCT), Teaneck’ s oldest synagogue, established in 1932, has secured the enormously popular Torah Academy of Bergen County rebbe Rabbi Daniel Fridman as its new spiritual leader. Rabbi Fridman, who has been teaching Gemara and Chumash to high school students at TABC only since 2015, is not a new Teaneck transplant, as he grew up in Teaneck and is uniquely aware of JCT’ s historic role as a central community institution. Fridman is well known to Teaneckers of all ages; he also teaches a well-attended class twice a week at Lamdeinu, a learning program for adults based in Teaneck’ s Congregation Beth Aaron.
“There were a few things that attracted me, specifically, to the Teaneck Jewish Center,” Rabbi Fridman said. “ I think it’ s very important to be challenged in life, and it was clear that this was going to be a very significant challenge, both in terms of charting a new course, as well as with respect to engaging many individuals who were connected at one point, but who are no longer currently involved. One of the most beautiful possibilities in a shul is to merge generations and backgrounds, so that everyone can be enriched.”
Rabbi Fridman has been living in Teaneck, but has spent most Shabbatot working as a resident scholar at Manhattan’ s Jewish Center on the Upper West Side, where he has taught since 2007. Rabbi Yosie Levine, rabbi at Manhattan’ s Jewish Center, has only glowing comments about Rabbi Fridman. Upon learning of Rabbi Fridman’s new position, Rabbi Levine spoke about his work at his institution over the past nine years. “ From his public lectures to his weekly classes: the breadth of his knowledge, his eloquence and his jaw-dropping erudition have left us both spell-bound and inspired. His warmth, compassion and capacity for empathy seem to know no bounds. And it has been an ongoing bracha for the children of our shul to have such a teacher and role model,” Rabbi Levine said.
Rabbi Fridman’s appointment to head JCT as senior rabbi has been heralded as a very bright and exciting move forward for the congregation. In the last several years, JCT faced immense challenges, dealing with a significantly reduced membership but burdened with the maintenance of their building. JCT was built in the 1950s when shuls were designed as community centers when Jews did not circulate as widely in the general population. JCT was intended to serve a large population, providing all manner of exercise, social and spiritual opportunities.
While Teaneck became a flagship Modern Orthodox community in the 1980s and 1990s, JCT faced challenges as having been associated with the Conservative movement, despite having numerous orthodox rabbanim as spiritual leaders, including the beloved Rabbi David Feldman z” l, a prominent medical ethicist and the father of Congregation Ohr Saadya’ s Rabbi Daniel Feldman. JCT did not establish a mechitza until the tenure of its most recent rabbi, Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, but by that time many shuls had already become institutionalized in other pockets of the town. Rabbi Zierler left the congregation in October 2014, as the congregation could no longer afford to pay him.
“We were in a decline for quite a few years,” said Isaac Student, JCT’ s president. “ Our first priority to was to solve our financial problem. We were too small for such a large building.”
Student explained that at its height, the shul had 1300 members, with many making use of the building around the clock, with its expansive gym, swimming pool, classrooms, sanctuary, chapel and special-event rooms. But the community was dwarfed by the growth of other local orthodox congregations in the 1990s. The community’ s stretching northward, toward Bergenfield, further dwindled the membership. Today, membership at JCT stands in the low 100s.
However, Student explained that the partnership with boys yeshiva high school Heichal HaTorah to purchase the building last year, thus keeping it in Jewish hands, was designed to allow the shul to continue to operate and use the building. “ We want the building to be a resource for the community and that is being accomplished now.” Student explained that not only are Heichal boys learning daily in the building, but the building also houses pre-school students from Shalom Yeladim and young adults from Yachad’ s work-study program. This fall, the SINAI Schools boys high school, based for many years at TABC, has split their 17-21 age students from the TABC campus to the JCT building (The students aged 14-17 remained at TABC). That program is called the Karasick Shalem Boys High School at Heichal HaTorah.
“When the Heichal HaTorah purchase went through, we had the money to afford a part-time rabbi. We had many applicants and many very, very impressive candidates. Rabbi Fridman was a very, very impressive candidate. We chose him, and he chose us,” said Student. “ Even though his official start date is September 12, he has contacted most of the members already and is actively engaged in talking to us and is attending our daily minyan,” Student added.
While Rabbi Fridman noted that the JCT, as well as any shul, needs a clear halachic and ideological stance, what he envisions is “ the exposure, on a human level, to different sorts of people. The Teaneck Jewish Center, in merging present and future, is absolutely ripe for that. In the words of the Psalmist, ‘ old and young, boys and girls, they will praise the name of God’ (Psalm 148).”
Rabbi Fridman was raised in Teaneck and educated at Yavneh Academy, the Frisch School, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Columbia University. He was ordained by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University.
By Elizabeth Kratz