Congregation Etz Ahaim – Sephardic
Highland Park’s Sephardic Synagogue
Background: Congregation Etz Ahaim – Sephardic, 230 Denison St, Highland Park, NJ, was founded in the 1920s to “fulfill the spiritual and educational needs of the Sephardic community, and to promote its social welfare.” Rabbi Eliyahu Tal said the congregation consists of approximately 125 families.
What are the most popular of your synagogue’s programs and/or services?
The most popular activity in our synagogue is the Shabbat program, with a program for children, a bountiful sit-down kiddush, and special melodies throughout the service. As we prepare for Shabbat, Rabbi teaches a special Thursday evening “Chumash and Chamin” program, where everyone can come together and discuss topics on the weekly parsha, followed by a delicious traditional dish called Chamin (similar to the cholent enjoyed by many Jews on Shabbat). It is a very popular dish during winter, but it’s so good that nobody would say no to it during the warmer months also! This activity also brings children and can be joined via Zoom.
What programs and/or services do you think capture the synagogue’s underlying philosophy?
We have multiple classes on the weekdays and Shabbat on different topics. After the daily minyan each morning Monday through Friday, we learn Talmud. Twenty minutes before Mincha in the afternoon, we learn Rambam (Maimonides). From time to time, we also have history classes about Sephardic leaders that lived in the past. On Sundays, we have Women’s Class at 10 a.m. taught by Rabbi Tal. As the only Sephardic congregation in the area, we want to do our best to provide for the needs of the entire Jewish community while embracing our Sephardic traditions.
What are some of the most unique aspects of Congregation Etz Ahaim?
We have a point to maintain proper decorum during services. Every day there is Birkat Cohanim, following Sephardic custom. Rabbi Tal is very welcoming and brings people to the Synagogue. On Shabbat, there are often guests at his table. He addresses the Halachic questions from the community with all the attention they merit, and compiles the questions and answers for periodic publication. Specially appointed congregants greet newcomers and regulars alike, making them feel at home. Our Sunday learning program is another opportunity for students of different age groups to learn how to read from the Torah according to our Sephardic tradition.
Have you implemented any changes based on the Covid experience?
We added a virtual attendance capability to many of our weekday programs, and we sent groceries to those that could not leave their homes.
What would you say to encourage someone to join your synagogue?
There are many reasons why we think people would like to join our synagogue. However, the main reason I think is to be connected to Jewish roots in a warm and welcoming environment for the whole family.
For more information about the synagogue, go to https://www.etzahaim.org/ or call
Joann Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.