2016-08-17 / Voice at the Shore

Ron Isaacs, now rabbi for Beth Judah Wildwood, will again lead Cape May beach service

Voice shore editor

Cape May’s 3rd Annual Shabbat Beach Service will be held August 26. Rabbi Ron Isaacs will lead and play guitar. Cape May’s 3rd Annual Shabbat Beach Service will be held August 26. Rabbi Ron Isaacs will lead and play guitar. Rabbi Ron Isaacs vacationed in Cape May for more than 20 years. Never, during that time, did he dream that he would one day be spiritual leader of a synagogue at the Jersey shore.

Yet Rabbi Isaacs, who will be leading the Shabbat Beach Service in Cape May on August 26 for the third year in a row, is now the interim rabbi for Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood, a small, 100-year-old congregation that holds the distinction of being the only synagogue in Cape May County. Isaacs currently leads services there two weekends each month, and will be leading High Holiday services there as well.

How did “Rabbi Ron” (as he is affectionately known)— a prolific author of more than 120 Jewish books, an award-winning educator, and the long-time rabbi for a large, Conservative synagogue of 530 families in Bridgewater, NJ (where he is now Rabbi Emeritus)—come to be rabbi for the resort town’s small synagogue?

Arguably, it began with Isaacs’ longtime dream of holding a beach service in Cape May.

“I always wanted to do a beach service,” said Isaacs. “There’s no better way to pray than next to the ocean, on the beach,” said Isaacs, who has spent most of his time in Cape May at the Montreal Beach Resort, which is just across the street from the Madison Avenue Beach.

Isaacs began vacationing at the Montreal after meeting the resort’s owner, Larry Hirsch, at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where both men were visiting their children. During the many years Isaacs has been a guest at the Montreal, he often asked Hirsch about holding a beach service in Cape May.

“He said he wanted to be the Rabbi of Cape May,” joked Hirsch, who is an active member of the Jewish community in Atlantic and Cape May Counties as well as a member of Beth Judah Temple. Ironically, Isaacs had no idea that Beth Judah Temple even existed at that point in time.

Two years ago, when the rabbi asked about doing the beach service, Hirsch finally said: “’Let’s do it!’” said Isaacs. Since then, during one Friday evening each summer, about 100 people—both Jews and non-Jews—have gathered for an informal but spiritual Shabbat service on the beach in front of the Montreal. Rabbi Ron leads the group in prayer, using a siddur that he himself wrote and designed especially for the beach service. The service is also musical—Isaacs plays guitar and passes out drums and tambourines, and there is an accompanist on keyboard. Afterwards, the group shares a light potluck kiddush and everyone hangs out on the beach, “schmoozing” and watching the sunset, said Hirsch.

Thanks to the beach service, Rabbi Ron had effectively become Cape May’s local summertime rabbi. So when Beth Judah Temple up the road in Wildwood needed a rabbi, Isaacs seemed like a good candidate—especially since he had recently told Hirsch he was retiring but was still hoping for an opportunity to lead High Holiday services.

“It seemed beshert, so I made both parties aware,” said Hirsch.

It was beshert. Last year, Isaacs led High Holiday services for the Wildwood synagogue and has been providing his own unique brand of spiritual leadership to Beth Judah’s services ever since.

“He’s down to earth and interesting,” noted Hirsch, who often attends. “Services are not just davening but educational and engaging. There’s a sense of inclusiveness with Rabbi Isaacs.”

For Isaacs, it has been an unexpected and rewarding learning experience. “This is not what I expected to do in ‘act 2’!” he laughed, adding, “I like the Jersey shore, so it’s been fun to grow a small but caring group that wants to keep a 100-year-old synagogue going.”

Providing spiritual sustenance for Jewish people visiting the Jersey shore, such as summer people, conventioneers, and Coast Guard recruits, definitely has its rewards, he added. “At my last service, a Coast Guard recruit stood up and said that he lived for coming to services at Beth Judah, for the opportunity to reboot after his stressful week in training.”

Beth Judah, which does not have a cantor, has also allowed him to play guitar and incorporate instrumental music into services, something he had always dreamed of doing but never acted on as rabbi of a congregation that had its own cantor.

Isaacs hopes to do more events like the beach service where he can bring Judaism to people— both Jews and non-Jews—outside of the synagogue setting.

“Not everyone is ready to set foot in a temple,” he notes.

He is hoping to hold an interfaith program, “Torah on Tap,” at a local pub, and on September 10 will lead an informal discussion group on “Jewish Cultural Literacy” at 7 p.m. at the Cape May home of Larry Hirsch and his wife Miriam.

Isaacs is also looking forward to once again leading High Holiday services this year at Beth Judah. Notably, worshippers do not need to be synagogue members or purchase any kind of ticket, he said, although an RSVP is requested. For more information on events and services at Beth Judah Temple (which is located on the corner of Pacific and East Spencer Avenues), go to bethjudahtemple@yahoo.com or call (609) 522-7541.

The upcoming Cape May beach service on August 26 will be held on the Madison Avenue Beach, across from the Montreal Beach Resort, at 6 p.m. Participants are asked to bring a beach chair and a potluck vegetarian dish to be shared at the Kiddush that follows. For more information, call the Montreal Beach Resort at (609) 884-7011. 

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