2017-11-22 / Home

Special Shabbat at Beth Tikvah to honor merger with Beth Torah


Rabbis Gary Gans (left) and Nathan Weiner display Torah coverings and hold the Megillah that came from Cong. Beth Torah in Willingboro. Rabbis Gary Gans (left) and Nathan Weiner display Torah coverings and hold the Megillah that came from Cong. Beth Torah in Willingboro. Wooed by good schools and a bounty of new inexpensive single-family homes in the burgeoning suburbs, Boyd Freedman and his family were among good company when they moved in 1958 to the South Jersey community then known as Levittown.

The new developments were already teeming with other Jewish families eager to connect and create Conservative Jewish life in a borough that would reclaim its colonial name of Willingboro by the mid-1960s.

Within a few years of holding its first Shabbat services in the municipal building, Cong. Beth Torah grew into a vibrant synagogue with full-time clergy, a school, and an active brotherhood and sisterhood that served some 250 families. Bingo was the big-time synagogue fundraiser. Members were involved in ambitious productions of “Gypsy” and other popular musicals in the 1960s and ’70s. A unique Tallis and Tefillin club connected the newly bar mitzvahed to older generations of men.

“We just all grew up together,” recalled Freedman, a longtime Beth Torah president. “We were young; our kids were young. We made friends who were members of Beth Torah. It was a definite cultural center for us.”

Memories of former Beth Torah congregants will be shared during a special Shabbat Dec. 2 at Cong. Beth Tikvah in Marlton commemorating the 20th anniversary of the merger between the two Burlington County synagogues.

“We’re creating a container for people with connections to Beth Torah to share their memories, and whatever memorabilia they have, and to reflect positively on the community they built there,” said Rabbi Nathan Weiner.

Given how seamlessly the 20 or so Willingboro families found a spiritual home at CBT, there has never been much interest in such reflections until now. With the youngest of the former Beth Torah congregants now in their 70s and the passing of several in recent years, now seemed an appropriate time to honor the memories, Weiner said.

As the schools declined and demographics of the borough changed by the 1980s, Willingboro lost favor among young families. By the mid- 1990s, both Beth Torah and Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation, were in decline. While Temple Emanu-El made the choice to move to Mount Laurel (and changed its name to Adath Emanu-El), Beth Torah leadership decided its best path forward was merging with another viable synagogue, Freedman said.

Sylvia Jacobs, CBT president at the time of the merger, recalled getting a phone call informing her that Beth Torah was interested in exploring the possibility of joining forces with a local synagogue. It was eyeing CBT and two other Conservative shuls. She and two other committee members were in talks with Beth Torah leadership for eight months exploring the possibilities.

“Mostly we were trying to find out what it was Beth Torah was looking for in a synagogue they were going to merge with, and whether or not we could give them what they needed,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs said she had a strong hunch a shidduch would be made amid a Friday night during the negotiation process when Beth Torah congregants were invited as guests to a CBT Shabbat service.

“It was a wonderful blending of their voices and our voices,” she recalled. “There was such strength in the unity of all of us being together. It was a culminating moment for me. I felt that this was going to be ok.”

Gary Gans, who was head rabbi at the time, recalled the serious thought that went into making Beth Torah congregants feel welcome in their new community, respecting their past and forging a future together.

“It was a great marriage of our two congregations,” recalled Gans, now CBT’s rabbi emeritus. “They brought to us an older generation that understood the value of a community synagogue, knew how to rely on each other, and had a sense of maturity and leadership that really filled a demographic gap.”

The Beth Torah contingent jumped onto existing committees, including ritual, synagogue administration, and especially into the sisterhood, where many went on to regional positions. In addition to their volunteerism and financial support, the congregants brought with them a beautiful olive wood Megillah, several Torah covers, and silverwork. Their Yahrtzeit panels were hung on the walls of CBT.

“We all feel a sense of being part of a larger community now and don’t maintain separate boundaries,” Gans said. “However, we do not blur the memories that Beth Torah brought with them.”

The Dec. 2 Beth Torah Anniversary Celebration starts with Shabbat services at 9:30 a.m., and will include a nosh and time to share stories and memorabilia.

For more information, contact (856) 983-8090.

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