By: Pamela Macek
Nestled within the township of Wayne, residents will find the Jewish house of worship, Shomrei Torah – the Wayne Conservative Congregation. Founded in 1973, Shomrei Torah began holding services in a one room building. Their steady growth has taken them into their present facility, which includes a beautiful, jewel-like sanctuary. This local synagogue is dedicated to serving its members through spiritual instruction, community service and fostering a kindred connection.
Since 1995, Rabbi Randall Mark has been the spiritual leader of Shomrei Torah. He works alongside a President, Officers, Trustees and support staff daily, so that the needs of the congregation can faithfully be met. Rabbi Mark spoke about the history behind the Jewish Conservative movement, his perspective on the current state of “the Jewish world,” Shomrei Torah’s mission and vision statements, as well as some of the ways the synagogue impacts their Jewish family and those in need here in Wayne and in Israel.
When people consider the Jewish faith, they realize, much like other religions, there are various denominations. Most commonly known are three mainstream forms of Judaism: Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. Rabbi Mark explained, “Orthodox Judaism is not so concerned with what everyone else is doing and most steadfast to their own beliefs, while Reform Judaism is much more aligned with the lifestyle of many American Jews.”
Shomrei Torah is Conservative – meaning middle of the road. Rabbi Mark continued, “Our motto here is Tradition and Change. We contemplate change in a slow and thoughtful process. Today we are part of a pluralistic society – live and let live, but still influenced by what goes on around us. Change is inevitable, but we endeavor to hold on to core beliefs that are non-negotiable.”
When asked about the history of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Mark went on to explain, “Post WWII, Conservative Judaism was the fastest growing denomination of the three branches of the Jewish faith within the American movements. Yet during the 21st century we are getting smaller. We live in a time and place that tends to go to the extremes. Middle ground is no longer accepted, and compromise is seen as a weakness as opposed to it being a goal.”
Rabbi Mark believes that today’s society is very mobile and transitory. With that understanding, the leaders of Shomrei Torah try to create a sense of grounding for their members. Their number one mission is to develop community through the implementation of numerous programs and religious endeavors.
“We come together daily every morning to pray – an act called a minyan, and to study Torah, as well as perform acts of social activism and social justice.” Tikkun olam, which in Hebrew literally means, “repair of the world” is a Jewish concept relating to the responsibility the Jewish people have for not only themselves, but their fellow man to live a lifestyle that creates the highest moral, spiritual and best material welfare possible for all society.
Within the Synagogue’s own community, tikkun olam is alive and well. Rabbi Mark shared, “When a family or individual experience a death, we visit them and provide meals. If the elderly need assistance, such as a ride, we provide transportation for doctor appointments and shopping, or we will also just stop in to check on them.”
The members of Shomrei Torah embrace and act upon the philosophy of tikkun olam outside their religious community in a variety of ways. They network with organizations such as the Wayne YMCA and the Jewish Federation of Housing. On a local level, the members collect food and non-perishables, then donate them to the Wayne Interfaith Network. The Temple also holds events such as a baby clothing drive or school supply collection. These items are then donated to poor communities both here and overseas in Israel.
The synagogue also has a project called “Operation Isaiah.” It is considered a mitzvah – a good deed done from religious duty. Shomrei Torah’s website explains Operation Isaiah like this:
“Beginning on Rosh Hashanah, grocery bags and lists of requested items will be available in the lobby of the synagogue. Families are asked to take one home, go to the supermarket and bring back at least one bag with the suggested personal care, cleaning or paper products on or before returning to the synagogue for the Kol Nidre service. These items will be donated to the Wayne Interfaith Network (WIN), a volunteer, non-profit, tax exempt organization that operates a food and basic necessities pantry here in Wayne. WIN distributes to our own community, our neighbors. The WIN volunteers come from churches, synagogues and other organizations throughout Wayne.”
During the time of Hurricane Sandy, the members at Shomrei Torah worked together to support folks in the community needing aid. This was through gracious acts like charging phones, providing coffee and ongoing support on many levels. This “tikkun olam,” is much like a community within a community in action.
When asked what was most fulfilling to him in his position as spiritual leader, the Rabbi replied, “The life cycle events.” This would be celebrations such as bar and bat mitzvahs or weddings, or even tragedies with illness or death. “If there is a funeral for a member of our congregation, it is common for our members to show support to the grieving family by bringing food to the home and sitting shiva with them. One builds community by being together for the crisis as well as for the time of celebration.”
When asked what was most challenging for Rabbi Mark within the congregation, he said, “Maintaining a connection with our youth after their bar and bat mitzvah is definitely a concern.” As part of the solution, the synagogue offers a vibrant Youth Group Program, which the Rabbi described as, “a microcosm of synagogue life.” Tuesday evenings, from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., the Temple offers, “Hebrew High School” for 8th – 12th grade youth. They also provide a youth group called USY – United Synagogue Youth, which offers fun, social activities, including regional dances and conventions. The USY of Shomrei Torah is one chapter of the Hagalil Region of USY, which is comprised of 40 chapters across the state.
The synagogue hosts multiple youth programs for their children, starting with Chaverim, which means “friends” in Hebrew. Since these children generally attend different public schools, this program is designed to help initiate and foster friendships through fun activities such as trips to the zoo, ice skating, and apple picking.
PreKadima is for 3rd and 4th graders. They meet once a month on Saturday nights, or additionally during the week, either at the synagogue or elsewhere. While developing friendships, the focus is on beginning to develop a strong Jewish identity among these youth.
Meeting at the same time as PreKadima, only for 5th thru 7th grade students, is Kadima – which means “forward” in Hebrew. A greater understanding for Judaism and Zionism is introduced in these programs as well as tikkun olam, which is fostered through hands on activities such as baking cookies for the American Red Cross blood drive and the local police department. Fun and education are finely interwoven and embraced by the pre-teens in Kadima.
Lastly, the synagogue has created a group called Koach College Outreach Program. Koach means “strength.” For a nominal fee, students living away from home will receive goodie packages for their “heart, soul and tummy” five times during the school year. This outreach program is to help ensure the connection between the college bound student and the Shomrei Torah community remains strong even after the student has left for college.
It is clear to see how strong the commitment is that the Shomrei Torah faculty has towards its youth. There are even special religious services geared towards different age groups as well as events that include outreach to non-members. Friday evenings hold a new service called Shabbat B’Yachad – which means “Sabbath together.” Friends and family gather together to enjoy music, prayer and refreshments in a more casual atmosphere than some of the other religious services held. When asked why refreshments are often served at various services, Rabbi Mark explained that, “Prayer, study and eating are always intertwined.”
The Jewish calendar has its own holidays, and the Shomrei Torah Congregation is always ready to welcome young and old, member or visitor, to join in and celebrate together. Every week on Friday at sundown, there are services for the Sabbath – or Shabbat. Additionally, there are holidays that are observed once a year. The main holidays are: Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, Sukkot – the Feast of Booths, Simchat Torah – Celebration of the conclusion of the annual, full cycle Torah reading , Chanukah – the Festival of Lights, Tu B’Shevat – the New Year of the Trees, Purim – the Festival of Lots, Passover – the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and Shavout – the Feast of Weeks.
Shomrei Torah also has a variety of clubs established. This creates opportunities for smaller groups to develop, as well as healthy, one-on-one friendships to develop. Whether the need is spiritual, educational or social, there is sure to be a club active for any interested member. The Men’s club has a yearly membership, with participants engaged in numerous fun activities which include fund raising, sponsoring an annual blood drive, weekly morning nature walks and even two poker nights.
The Sisterhood, as you can tell, is a club for adult women in the congregation. They seek to strengthen bonds of friendship through service and their support of the Religious School, as well as increase an enhanced participation in Jewish life and the perpetuation of Judaism. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as sponsoring Sukkot and Shavuot luncheons, participating in a Walk-a-thon for Breast Cancer, supplying food, cake and candy for holidays and providing gifts for Bar/Bat Mitvahs. There are many more opportunities to get involved, and the Shomrei Torah’s website provides this information.
One of the highlighted programs within the Synagogue is called Machloket Matters – a program from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Machloket means “debate” or “conflict,” and the leadership endeavors to engage its members in political discourse without hating each other using Rabbinic texts as their informational resource.
There are currently about 250 families attending Shomrei Torah. The desire for healthy community within the congregation as well as within the local community is evident. The members want everyone to visit, feel welcome and experience how their atmosphere is haimishe – warm and friendly.