Hammonton’s TBE tests the waters in Haddonfield, offering services
In 1937, the dedication of Temple Beth El in Hammonton fulfilled the dreams of a small group of merchants yearning to nurture Jewish communal life in their rural town.
Nearly 80 years later, the synagogue is still in use— although very few TBE members actually live in Hammonton. The small congregation’s unique approach— combining Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions with modern-day egalitarianism, music and movement— draws congregants from as far away as Philadelphia, Collingswood, the shore and other South Jersey communities, said Rabbi Abby Michaleski.
And now, in an attempt to meet members closer to where they live, the congregation is offering an additional monthly service at the Haddonfield Friends Meetinghouse. The congregation’s first few services, including the second-day Rosh Hashanah service and potluck meal Oct. 4, have been welcomed by TBE’s regulars and even brought in some new faces, she said.
“We feel we have a lot to offer and want to bring it to an area where there are more Jews,” said Michaleski, whose role has evolved from active congregant and lay leader to student rabbi for nine years before she was ordained in 2015 by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
Haddonfield, a community without a synagogue of its own, is an ideal location, she said.
“It’s centrally located and the space is lovely, just beautiful,” Michaleski said. “The values of Quakers are consistent with Judaism. They have been very welcoming of us.”
With approximately 25 member families and a Sunday school that meets weekly in its quaint, well-maintained building, TBE is committed to staying in Hammonton, she stressed. In 2010, when the synagogue flooded following two large snow storms and heavy rains, the community undertook a large reconstruction project to repair the damage. In 2014, it received a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation to restore its Torahs. A fundraising campaign is currently underway to bring the scribe back to work on a Kabalistic Torah of Czech origin dating from the 1800s.
The Haddonfield services, which will typically take place on the third Saturday morning each month, will be in addition to the Hammonton ones, most of which are scheduled for the first Friday of each month and on holidays and festivals. On the weekends that she’s not at the New Jersey congregation, Michaleski also leads services once a month at P’nai Or, a Jewish Renewal synagogue in Philadelphia. By day, she works as an addictions counselor.
Collingwood resident Janet Newfield has been attending services at both P’nai Or and TBE whenever she can get there.
“I love the little synagogue in Hammonton; it reminds me of childhood,” she said, recalling going to shul with her grandfather in Easton, PA. “I think having something in Haddonfield is lovely. I really want to see this community thrive. Abby does a lovely, lovely service. It’s very spiritual.”
Philadelphian Sandy Gonzales, who attended the first Haddonfield service, said it was a typical TBE service—relaxed, informal and spiritual—just closer to home.
“It was delightful to be able to get there in so much less time,” Gonzales said.
Haddonfield resident Ilise Levy Feitshans said she is glad that the congregation has a presence in her hometown.
“We the Jews of Haddonfield had felt as if we had our own private Diaspora,” stated Levy Feitshans, who spearheaded a successful effort in 2005 to have an annual Chanukiah lighting at the township’s library. “We knew about each other but each has been closeted away from religious events in town and hidden even from each other by attending services outside our jurisdiction because until now we did not feel like we had a place to gather together. So we worshiped elsewhere or alone.”
The next TBE service in Haddonfield is 10:30 a.m. Nov. 19 at the Haddonfield Friends Meeting, 24 Friends Ave.
For more information, visit http://www.tbenj.org