Two hundred people celebrated the best kind of growing pains when Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey broke ground for its new 12,000 square foot home.
Just ten years ago, Chabad moved into its home on One Torah Way, but the popularity of its preschool, classes, Hebrew school and new Hebrew high have filled its cozy synagogue and ground floor classrooms to capacity and then some. In the current space, much time is spent moving the tiny tables and knee-high chairs to the side for Hebrew school and evening Torah classes and then back again so the kids have room for blocks and play dough the next morning. “The new building will allow for the quality and quantity of our classes to be enhanced,” said Chabad representative Rabbi Asher Herson.
At the groundbreaking festivities, Israeli music legend, Ron Eliran, sang about telling the world of the enduring existence of the Jewish people. The up-tempo music and the uplifting message dramatized the impact the new facility will have, according to synagogue president Mark Neidich. “The whole purpose of this building is to perpetuate Judaism,” he said. The distinguished multi-story building that will house the preschool, Hebrew school, Hebrew high, adult education classes and a mikveh should will raise Chabad’s profile in the community. “I think it will bring a lot more people who are marginally connected to Judaism, especially with the improved day care setting.”
Rabbi Herson credits the preschool as an engine for Rockaway Chabad’s growth. Lead by director Flory Heller, who received the Hoffman Award for Excellence in Jewish Education for her creative teaching, the school uses the pedagogically pedigreed Reggio Emilia approach to bring lessons to life. “The preschool children are so adorable they deserve more space,” said community member Ellen Levine Cramer.
Preschool parents brought their little ones, who danced in time with the music. Hebrew school parents rubbed shoulders with synagogue regulars. Adults who wouldn’t miss a nighttime Torah class shared the moment with those who attend Chabad on the High Holy Days. “One of the most meaningful parts of the day,” said Rabbi Herson, “was seeing people from diverse backgrounds having one common goal, united together.”
The event attracted a prestigious passel of local officials. Mayor Louis Sceusi, Louis Sceusi, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, State Senator Anthony Bucco, Rockaway Township and Police Chief Walter Kimble praised Chabad’s community spirit. “It was great to see how well respected Chabad is and how integrated they are into the community,” said Cramer.
Given the unusual property paper chase that Chabad had to pursue to take ownership of the land for the new facility, it’s a good thing Township powers-that-be see merit in the congregation’s wish to expand. Titles to over twenty slivers of land had to be acquired to piece together the facility’s real estate. Back when Rockaway was a getaway for city dwellers, only landowners had rights to use the town lake. Would-be vacationers bought hiccup sized plots just big enough to claim lake rights, too tiny to build on. Original owners or their descendants had to agree to sell, donate or trade land. The search, sale and legal work took close to two years to complete.
Along the way, Rabbi Herson and his colleague Rabbi Mordechai Baumgarten discovered that several decades ago Rockaway had been one of the few resort places in the area that was open to vacationers of the Jewish faith. Rabbi Herson estimates that the vast majority of the plot owners were Jewish. “There has always been a Jewish presence here,” said Rabbi Herson. “Now we’re building on it.”
As Chief Kimble leaned on the shovel that broke ground for the new Chabad Center of Northwest New Jersey, the cornerstone of the new Chabad Center was lifted into the air. A simple hunk of granite, tough and true–like the residents of Rockaway who love Chabad for educating their children, for giving them a place to pray, and learn and grow– became the cornerstone of what Rabbi Herson can already see as part of greater edifice, “the building of a better society.”