Background: Congregation Agudath Achim, 301 McCabe Ave., Bradley Beach. This year is the shul’s centennial. Although it dates to 1898, it was formally established in September 1923 as an Orthodox shul. Before the end of World War II, most of the surrounding Shore communities were closed to Jews. Only a few, such as Bradley Beach, were open, which is why people such as novelist Philip Roth’s family and hundreds of other middle-class Jews with Eastern European roots rented rooms and shared bungalows in Bradley Beach, beginning in the early 1900s. The shul’s rich history includes supporting the establishment of Israel in its War of Independence with clandestine munitions supplies and, years later, hosting Israeli statesman Abba Eban.
Dr. Leonard Bielory is President. Rabbi Maury Kelman, who received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, has been serving the congregation since 2016. The shul’s previous full-time spiritual leader, Rabbi Herbert Bialik, and his wife retired after 41 years and moved to Israel.
What programs and/or services do you think capture the synagogue’s underlying philosophy?
Beginning in 2016, Kabbalat Shabbat on the Shore (KSOS) was initiated on Friday evenings, combining live music until Shabbat begins with moving prayers overlooking the ocean followed by a kiddush. This attracts individuals from all walks of life, including boardwalk strollers, walking, cycling and even cars driving by. This proved very popular in bringing new people and showing that our shul will go beyond our walls to show the beauty of Judaism.
On Borough Appreciation Day we invite emergency medical personnel including police, fire department, other volunteers and other public officials including the mayor and town council to come to our synagogue. At the conclusion of services, the rabbi acknowledges them for their public service. This followed at our kiddush in their honor with a “cholent” competition for which the local leaders act as judges.
Services are held every Shabbos. We have welcomed over 30 new members as we’ve restored our shul’s founders’ vision of welcoming all Jews to services that incorporate prayer, communal singing and words of Torah that are relevant to all people. Programs include Parshah in the Pews, Day Yomi, Weekly Parshah Reviews, “Torah in the Backyard” on a Shabbos afternoon, and a new lecture series on Science and Judaism.
These all fit into our philosophy of highlighting the beauty and relevance of Orthodoxy in the modern world, serving as a bridge to make us all kinder and better people.
What is the most unique aspect of your synagogue?
As did the original founders of the shul, we seek to attract and include a diverse population both for services and other programs to shatter any stereotypes that people have about an Orthodox shul. Programs mentioned above show our appreciation of the larger community in which we reside.
As part of the inclusiveness, we have a special pre-Thanksgiving program serving a full kosher Thanksgiving dinner for all the volunteers and emergency medical personnel from the community police and fire departments. We have also instituted dialogues on Black-Jewish relations on Martin Luther King Day.
Congregation Agudath Achim of Bradley Beach is truly a diverse synagogue. We have people of all backgrounds. And while services follow traditional Jewish law, we make a special effort to welcome all Jews and show the relevance of Judaism for all people.
Have you implemented any changes based on the COVID experience?
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic we increased the number of web-based programs. They are now hybrid in-person as well as web-based to increase access. As noted below we have had the opportunity of outdoor services for the High Holidays overlooking the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Are there any other challenges you’ve overcome that you’d like to share, so others can learn from your experience?
While we celebrate our 100th anniversary this year, the shul for the last number of years had only been open in the summer. Over last two years, there has been a renaissance, creating a year-round community because of new people moving to the community and others who have lived in the community, but did not necessarily come to synagogue. We have a nice kiddush with a discussion every Shabbos during the fall and winter so that people can come together over food and socialize, which adds a special attraction to Shabbos morning.
What are the most popular of your synagogue’s programs and/or services?
Attempting to include the spirituality of the Jersey Shore, we have held High Holiday, Sukkot and Shabbat services outdoors physically overlooking the ocean with our Sephardic Bradley Beach neighbor, Magen David Congregation, with which we have a wonderful relationship. Praying to G-d under a tent while watching the vastness of the ocean and skies is a truly exhilarating experience, especially when surrounded by our growing community and guests. We call this our Yosef U’Batia Mishan “Tentukkah,” as we transform part of the tent from use for the High Holiday services into a sukkah, which we use for Sukkot. While the original motivation was COVID, people want to continue to pray in this beautiful setting for its own sake.
Our Shofar in the Park has also attracted large crowds to the town green so that people who may not attend synagogue can hear the shofar and provide apples and honey, reflecting the sweetness of bringing a new year as well as explain the significance of the shofar to the many people who attend.
Other highlights include ice sculpting a Hanukkiah memorial on the town green.
What would you say to encourage someone to join your synagogue?
We welcome all Jews. Come “JFK”—Just for Kiddush—and meet our welcoming members and Rabbi Kelman. Join history as we celebrate our 100th centennial. Become part of our growing community.
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.