East Brunswick Jewish Center
Background: East Brunswick Jewish Center (EBJC) is a Conservative Jewish synagogue located at 511 Ryders Lane, East Brunswick. Incorporated in 1959, it was originally the East Brunswick Community Group. By early 1959, the congregation had hired a temporary rabbi, written a constitution, and on Jan. 27, 1962, celebrated its first bar mitzvah. Long known as a traditional congregation, it now holds both egalitarian and traditional services. After multiple expansions, it can house up to 1,200 individuals for the High Holy Day services and several hundred children in various levels of Hebrew school classes. The gym is rented to many local basketball and soccer teams. EBJC is a center for Jewish life. Because Rabbi Jeff Pivo had to leave due to health reasons, beginning Aug. 1 Cantor Larry Brandspiegel, who has rabbinic ordination, is serving as Interim Rabbi. Co-presidents are Jack Goldberg and Steve Wohl.
Phone: (732) 257-7070
What are the most popular of your synagogue’s programs and services?
Six years ago, we called a meeting with Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ and Jewish Family Services to discuss the formation of a senior group to meet at EBJC because we felt a strong need to do something for our seniors. We called the group Hazak. Federation provides the food through the Cameo program. Jewish Family Services orders the food to be delivered to EBJC and they help serve the food. EBJC provides and pays for all the entertainment and programs. Our goal was to reach all seniors and word of mouth has made Hazak very popular. It started small and as of this writing, we average 50 to 60 seniors for an afternoon luncheon and 60 to 100 for our dinners and brunch. We offer seven luncheons, a dinner in September and a dinner in June, and in February, we offer a Sunday brunch. The thought regarding the dinners and brunch was to reach the 55- to 70-year-olds who are, in many cases, still working and cannot attend an afternoon luncheon. Our dinners start at 6 p.m. and end before sundown so that those who are uncomfortable driving at night can drive home when it is still reasonably bright outside.
What programs and/or services do you think capture the synagogue’s underlying philosophy?
Our philosophy is inclusion. We want the community to know that Jews of color, in alternative families, and in the LGBTQ2+ community are welcome. Recently, we decided that our synagogue was going to be an egalitarian Conservative synagogue. We’ve always been a part of the Conservative movement and a member of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and have had egalitarian services for the last 10 years, but were still known as “traditional.” In order to move forward and align ourselves with 99% of the synagogues in the Conservative movement, we felt it necessary to become known as an egalitarian synagogue. As long as we have a core of traditional members, we will strive to continue the traditional service in our chapel running concurrently with our main egalitarian service in the sanctuary. The two join together for musaf and kiddush!
What is the most unique aspect of your synagogue?
We have three very strong arms of our synagogue—Men’s Club, Sisterhood and Mitzvah Corps. Although most, if not all synagogues have a Men’s Club and Sisterhood, these two groups work with EBJC in a true partnership. We support each other and do not have a “we vs. them” attitude as so many shuls experience. We are truly blessed to have this relationship. Mitzvah Corps supports yashar lachayal, an organization that provides soldiers of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) with relaxation huts filled with toiletries, snacks, etc. Their fundraising, done primarily through the purchase of kosher wine and liquor, has built several huts for the IDF. In addition, the Mitzvah Corps helps EBJC by supporting fundraisers, providing wine for events and so much more.
Have you implemented any changes based on the COVID experience?
The largest change we made was introducing Zoom and streaming to our services and daily minyan. What we are most proud of is our origination and implementation of Partners in Jewish Programming. Out of need, we reached out, first to local synagogues, and then to synagogues throughout the country in an effort to provide programming to our members, affordably. A speaker who charges $500 may not be affordable to one shul, but 10 paying $50 each is very affordable! This group, 30 synagogues strong, spans from New York to California, Texas to Ohio, and everywhere in between. Over the past three years, we have partnered together to offer over 120 wonderful, interesting and entertaining programs via Zoom. We have offered two seven-part series in Jewish history. We have a virtual Jewish travel series and have ventured to Jewish Barcelona, Jewish Berlin, Jewish Portugal, etc. We toured the building and house where the family of Anne Frank lived. We have laughed with entertainers and speakers. We’ve enjoyed the music of several musicians. We interviewed Tovah Feldshuh and Lainie Kazan—all because we joined together to make it affordable. We continue to go strong and are working on programming for next fiscal year.
Are there any other challenges you’ve overcome that you’d like to share, so others can learn from your experience?
One of the biggest challenges we faced five years ago was the low registration of our preschool, the Center for Early Learning. We were down to only seven children registered for the year and fiscally, it made no sense to keep the school open. However, with the forward thinking of some of the members of the board, the clergy and staff, we decided on a “leap of faith” to give it one more year. We did not want to take away this very strong footprint for EBJC and knew that if we closed, there would be no Jewish preschools in the area. At the end of that year, we had 13 children and although we are not a large preschool, we hold steady at about 22 children and are hoping that our Jewish families see value in sending their children to a Jewish preschool where Jewish traditions and values are taught. Where Shabbat Ema and Aba sing with the Cantor and class to welcome Shabbat every Friday. Where holidays and Hebrew are taught. Where Jewish children get to connect and form lasting friendships, and where parents can feel comfortable that their children are in a caring, loving, safe and educational environment.
What would you say to encourage someone to join your synagogue?
This is what I say to people—come to services, come to an event or a program, join in on a Lunch and Learn, speak to the people you encounter, experience the shul before you join. If you invest the time, the shul can become your family. As much as we’d like everyone to become a part of our EBJC family, we know it is a personal decision. When they’re ready, we’ll be here. No Jewish family is ever turned away due to financial hardship or need. We don’t look in people’s checkbooks or bank accounts. We’re here in good times and bad… that’s what family does.
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.