60 Years On, Wayne’s First Reform Temple Continues To Be Home To Congregants

60 Years On, Wayne’s First Reform Temple Continues To Be Home To Congregants

 

By Anya Bochman

Temple Beth Tikvah (TBT), Wayne Township’s Reform Jewish congregation, got its humble beginnings in 1956, when a group of 15 Jewish families came together with the purpose of establishing a house of worship where other Jews could gather, study and pray. The temple would also be a designated place where future generations could learn about their Reform Jewish heritage. Named “House of Hope” in Hebrew, the congregation received its first Torah, affiliated with the Reform Movement, within the next few years.

The current building that houses TBT was built in 1963, according to official temple archivist Janice Paul. In the years between the congregation’s inception and the erection of the temple on Preakness Avenue, TBT members would meet in a church basement, and then a now-defunct Wayne PAL building.

By 1960, Temple Beth Tikvah had expanded to serve 150 families, and Rabbi Shai Shacknai became the congregation’s first spiritual leader. Instrumental in developing the fledgling Reform temple in its formative years, Shacknai tragically passed away of cancer in November 1969. Shacknai’s legacy as a charismatic leader impacted the community, and led to late Senator Frank Lautenberg’s establishment of the Rabbi Shai Shacknai Prize, which regularly honors leading cancer researchers from abroad.

Paul, who is also a former president of Temple Beth Tikvah, joined the congregation with her parents in 1965 when she was starting kindergarten. Having grown up in the temple (her mother, Beryl Paul, was also a one-time TBT president), Paul remembers the impact of Shacknai’s death.

“He passed away when I was in fourth grade, and it was very traumatic to experience as a child,” Paul said.

Shacknai’s successor, Rabbi Israel Dresner, took over rabbinical duties in 1971, and suggested an annual lecture to honor Shacknai’s memory. Recent guest lecturers include David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish committee, who spoke about challenges to world Jewry in 2017.

The township of Wayne currently includes the Shai Shacknai Memorial Park, a public space to honor the temple’s first rabbi.

Cantor Charles Romalis, now retired, arrived at TBT in 1966, to co-officiate services with Shacknai. Helping create “an atmosphere of joy and celebration through his cantorate and to create a wonderful and meaningful musical legacy second to none,” according to the temple’s website, Romalis made the congregation a spiritual home for generations of Jewish families.

An “eternal optimist,” Romalis had led services at Temple Beth Tikvah for 50 years before being bestowed with the title of Cantor Emeritus, a sacred term for a life-long cantor who serves as a messenger to the community.

“He is very much a part of the temple family,” said Paul.

Rabbi Israel Dresner took over temple spiritual leadership following the death of Shacknai, and served the congregation for the next 25 years. A pivotal participant in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Dresner was one of the three rabbis with close relationships to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was also the first rabbi arrested in 1961 in an interfaith clergy freedom ride, and was famously dubbed “the most arrested rabbi in America” for his civil rights protest work.

Retiring in 1995, Dresner was appointed Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah. As the temple’s website describes him, Dresner “was and continues to be instrumental in transmitting the beauty of our heritage and in teaching Jewish values to children and adults alike, with an emphasis on social justice.”

Following Dresner’s retirement, Rabbi Stephen Wylen continued in the role of temple spiritual leader from 1995 to 2014. Wylen’s first published book, “Settings of Silver,” has for many years been a popular college introduction to Judaism courses. Additionally, Wylen wrote “The Book of the Jewish Year,” a textbook on Jewish holidays for the Reform movement.

Like many congregants of TBT, Wylen was drawn to the more traditional leanings of the services, a quality absent in some more strict Reform congregations.

“It was unusual back then [for a Reform temple] to have Hebrew in the service or singing,” Wylen stated. “That was an attraction, as well as Wayne being a vibrant town with a large Jewish community.”

One aspect of his spiritual leadership that he is especially proud of is Wylen’s editing and creating the Temple Beth Tikvah Siddur, which the congregation used for 15 years until it was changed to the Mishkan T’Filah in 2017.

“That was a very important part that reflected the worship style of the congregation; the goal was to make people feel empowered by the Siddur, rather than alienated because some couldn’t read the Hebrew,” Wylen stated.

Describing himself as a “religious school-oriented rabbi,” Wylen took great pride in TBT’s Hebrew school. His philosophy for instruction was “the joy of Jewish living.” The rabbi was also instrumental in establishing a special needs program for children at the temple. In his last year at TBT, he had 19 post-confirmation students.

Israeli-born rabbi and cantor Meeka Simerly joined the temple in 2016, becoming its first female rabbi. According to Simerly, who grew up in what she described as an “ultra-secular and Zionist” former Soviet family, she rediscovered her Jewish roots and fell in love with Reform Judaism after moving from Haifa, Israel, to California to study music in 1995.

“I discovered the beauty of Reform Judaism [in America],” Simerly stated. “It wasn’t there in Israel, and I fell in love with it while doing my graduate studies.”

Simerly subsequently began the process of “climbing the ladder” to rabbinical education and became musically active in various congregations and organizations. She served as cantor at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, Calif., for 10 years, simultaneously continuing her studies and earning her second master’s and ordination as a rabbi.

“A lot of congregants asked for a woman rabbi when the search committee was looking at candidates,” said Paul. “It’s a welcome transition that we were ready for as a congregation.”

Hired as rabbi by Temple Beth Tikvah while she was still in school, Simerly describes her impression of the congregation as “love at first sight.”

“The people are beautiful, warm, really awesome human beings,” Simerly said. “[My husband] and I fell in love with their willingness as a congregation to keep Judaism alive while also putting people before tradition.”

One of the temple’s main missions, which Simerly describes as closely matching her own, is maintaining a dynamic, progressive heritage of prayer, a strong focus on social conscience and engaging in acts of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish concept of helping repair the world. As per the temple’s website, “Temple Beth Tikvah remains committed to supporting the diverse spiritual, educational, cultural, and social needs of our temple family. Our House of Hope is far more than just a house. It is a home for the Jewish community in which we find God’s presence, values and teachings.”

Paul, whose son Andrew is 16 and was also raised in the congregation, echoes these sentiments in describing her relationship to the temple.

“Temple Beth Tikvah is a tapestry of who I am,” the achivist stated. “It’s truly a second home and a second family. We sing “L’Dor V’Dor” – from generation to generation – and it’s entirely true at the temple. It means so much to our congregants to raise our children in the same synagogue. It’s emotional, and hard to imagine anything else.”

Among the temple’s charitable deeds is a dedication to supporting the local food pantries, which included serving meals at St. Paul’s homeless shelter in Paterson during Wylen’s tenure as rabbi. Service to the community continues with Simerly at the helm, as child members are also being engaged in learning charity.

With encouragement from Simerly, who describes herself as “a great supporter of animal rights,” the children participated in the congregation’s first ever PAWS Shabbat on July 7. While getting to meet dogs cared for by local organizations, Hebrew school students donated goods and funds to the local no-kill animal shelter.

Continuing in the footsteps of Dresner’s social activism, the temple recently collaborated with Muslim faith leaders and community members. DoNotHate.org, a group of local Muslim high schoolers, joined Temple Beth Tikvah in June for a “Shabbat Muzikali” service led by Simerly, who felt kinship with the students’ Turkish heritage as her mother’s ancestors lived in Turkey before moving to Israel.

The event came about after the Muslim group’s five organizers read Simerly’s blog and sermons on Temple Beth Tikvah’s website, and contacted her to speak about their own work. Impressed by the students’ sincerity and focus, the rabbi invited them to address the shul’s teenage members and foster Jewish-Muslim solidarity.

“If there is a protest, like to welcome immigrants, the temple participates,” Simerly stated. “I’m very proud of the congregants for showing up.”

As a Jewish institution, Temple Beth Tikvah comprises three “houses;” the House of Study, which seeks education through learning and understanding the Torah; the House of Worship, which focuses on Jewish ritual to spiritually uplift individuals and “sanctify life’s joys and comforts during life’s sorrows;” and the House of Gathering. The latter is a dedicated effort to be a multigenerational, welcoming and responsive community.

With the conclusion of celebrating the Jewish High Holy Days in October, both temple members and staff are next looking forward to the Kristallnacht Shabbat on Nov. 9. While remembering the devastating pogroms of 1938 Nazi Germany, which saw the destruction of Jewish businesses and houses of worship and served as an overture for the genocide of the Holocaust, the night also seeks to educate the youth and honor Jewish victims of anti-Semitism.

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