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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 3 Apr 2020 06:52 PM and ends Sat 4 Apr 2020 07:50 PM

Teanek Synagogue divides sexes to survive

ז' אב ה' אלפים תשס"ז

A venerable Conservative synagogue in Teaneck, aiming to attract the township's burgeoning Orthodox Jewish population, has begun using a partition to separate men and women during some of its worship services.

The Jewish Center of Teaneck's decision to use separate seating -- a staple of Orthodox Judaism -- reflects the travails of a landmark synagogue struggling to keep pace with a transformed Jewish community.

Indeed, the congregation's president said the move is necessary for the synagogue's survival.

"If we do not make this change, this place will at some point fold or fail, because the demography of this town is predominantly Orthodox," Howard Wang said. "And in order for us to get any growth and development, we need the young Orthodox families to come here."

The synagogue -- Teaneck's first -- flourished in the 1960s and 1970s with a membership of 1,400 that included prominent local leaders such as Matthew Feldman, the late mayor and state senator.

Conservative Judaism typically seeks to strike a middle ground between the more liberal Reform movement on the left and the more traditional Orthodox on the right.

But a gradual slide in the synagogue's membership has left it with 350 families. And it's now one of about 16 synagogues vying for members among the township's 40,000 residents.

All but five of those congregations are Orthodox, whose numbers escalated dramatically in Teaneck during the 1980s and 1990s.

Orthodox synagogues typically seat men and women separately -- a practice rooted in the belief that prayer should be a solitary communion with God, free from distractions, such as the opposite sex.

"We're honoring a tradition that goes back to the original temple in biblical times," said Rabbi Lawrence Zierler, who took over as the center's spiritual leader last year. "Our synagogues are to some extent supposed to reflect the structure of the original temple."

For the last several weeks, the Jewish Center has been using a portable partition for weekday, Sunday, Friday evening and Saturday afternoon services in its auditorium. The main Sabbath services in the sanctuary still have mixed seating.

Members voted by a 6-to-1 ratio in favor of the change.

Zierler and others said the lopsided vote reflected a congregation that has always leaned right in its religious practices. It broke its formal affiliation with the Conservative movement decades ago and opposed such modernizing changes such as female ordination.

"In a sense, it was an Orthodox synagogue without the gender separation," Zierler said. "People here are not card-carrying Conservative Jews in the classical sense."

Longtime member and Vice President Eva Gans said she preferred mixed seating, but nonetheless voted for the change.

"I would always prefer praying next to my husband," she said. "I've been doing that all my life.

"But for me, it's a matter of principle, not a matter of personal choice. In other words, I believe this is something we needed to do."

Gans said the partition separates the room down the middle, avoiding the practice found in some orthodox congregations of seating women in the back.

Nevertheless, another member expressed concern about the change.

"I'm in the process of watchful waiting," said the member, who asked not to be named. "The concern is that they have a delicate balance to walk."

Zierler, however, said that the Teaneck area has become a magnet for traditional Jews, and that the synagogue can draw off the steady influx. He envisions a synagogue that will be Orthodox in practice but independent and open-minded.

"I call it open orthodoxy," he said. "It's an approach that implies a commitment to Jewish law but a willingness to have an exchange of ideas and a recognition of the diversity that exists within the Jewish community."

E-mail: chadwick@northjersey.com

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