He’s the new kid on the block, and he’s bucking demographics, migration patterns, and an aging population to try to rejuvenate a 70-year-old temple in North Bergen. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
He is Rabbi Sruli Dresdner of Temple Beth El. Where many would see a challenge, he sees opportunity.
In July, Dresdner will celebrate his first anniversary as rabbi at the temple. He is fully committed to his work in North Bergen.
Hudson County is not known for its Jewish influence. No one talks about the “Jewish vote” here, although the nearby town of Hoboken recently elected its first Jewish mayor, and the new mayor of Jersey City is Jewish as well. Dresdner noted that the North Bergen area has a small Jewish population, but said he is not dissuaded.
“I knew this was a temple struggling,” Dresdner said. “I knew they needed someone to inject spirit and energy. I hope we can infuse this place with enough excitement so people would come and join.”
Dresdner, formerly of Queens, N.Y., likes what he has found in North Bergen.
“We’re impressed with the town,” Dresdner said. “It’s filled with hardworking people, mostly immigrant, working very hard for their children. It’s very inspirational to be here. “It’s people who are working hard so that their children can have a better life – the American dream in action.”
That translates into diversity for his temple, something he likes and encourages. At a recent Friday night service, there were congregants of three races, several nationalities, ranging in age from 17 to 87.
“It’s people who are working hard so that their children can have a better life – the American dream in action.” – Rabbi Sruli Dresdner
At each service, about 20 percent are native Spanish speakers, according to Dresdner. He cited three Cuban Jewish congregants that he knows personally.
‘Origin of things’
Elvis Donini, 42, travels from North Arlington to worship at Temple Beth El. An Italian from Salerno, Italy, he converted to the faith in April. He had been interested in Judaism for several years.
“For me, there’s always been a great desire to go back to the origin of things,” he said. “Judaism has some kind of unique richness. Most teachings of Christianity included Judaism, but this is more mystical and Kabbalistic.”
“There’s a lot of interest in this particular synagogue, and people wanting to see it continue,” Dresdner said, “which is a challenge, considering the changing demographic.”
While Temple Beth El has about 70 families on its rolls, Dresdner admits that much of that is an aging population. As of 1980, there were 300 member families – during the synagogue’s “heyday.” Many of those Jews moved away to the suburbs.
Advice from his wife
Dresdner hopes to energize his temple with several new initiatives. They include post-service socials, twice-a-year Jewish film festivals, children’s programs, and their own website; Templebethelofnorthbergen.org. Dresdner and his wife, Rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) Lisa Mayer, oversee the content.
“It’s kind of a Jewish advice column,” he joked. “It has an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ page. It’s serious and lighthearted. I think people look forward to it.”
Recent questions posted were: “Do Jews believe in the afterlife?” and “In cases of an interfaith couple where the father is Jewish and the mother is not Jewish, are the children of the said couple not considered Jewish unless they convert to Judaism?”
The rabbi also wants to explore bringing in congregants with children who need extra reading help, as a community service.
See templebethelofnorthbergen.org for more features and activities.
Neighboring mayoral election
Howard Barmad, 86, has lived in North Bergen 37 years. Barmad said he feels comfortable being a Jew in Hudson County, even though those ranks have thinned.
Prior to the Jersey City municipal election, he said he was buoyed by the possibility that fellow Jew Steven Fulop might win the mayoralty there.
“He has a solid background, is an educated young man, worked on Wall Street, and was in the Marines,” Barmad said.
Ira Cohen, 61, grew up in North Bergen and still lives here. The retired computer programmer enjoys coming weekly to Temple Beth El. He believes that the Jewish population in the area is in the “single digits,” but does not let that fact affect his faith or service attendance.
“The Jewish population certainly has changed in this area,” he said. “But you keep to your beliefs. As long as there are services to go to, you’re happy.”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.