Background: Temple Emanu-El (TEE) was established in 1961 as a Reform congregation. it has a diverse population, inclusive membership policies and a record of leadership in social issues. Their Religious School provides a Reform Jewish education from Kindergarten through Grade 12, and is also certified to offer special education classes. TEE has an adult education program that includes ongoing classes such as Lunch n’ Learn, Torah Study, Book Club, Beginners and Intermediate Hebrew, and weekly interdisciplinary courses. It also has Scholar-in-Residence programs and an Adult Confirmation program. Adult B’nai Mitzvah and Conversion Courses are offered as needed. According to its web site, TEE is “largely run and operated” by a large, active cadre of volunteers.
The synagogue is planning at some point to move from its current location onto the campus of the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County.
President: Joan Ellen, Cantor: Emily Simkin, Rabbi: Vicki L. Axe
Phone: (732) 549-4442
Address: 1775 Oak Tree Road, Edison
What are the most popular of your synagogue’s programs and/or services?
Our synagogue thrives on activities, events and services that truly highlight our enjoyment of being together as a community. The most popular programs are those where we can learn together and from one another. Our Lifelong Learning opportunities have a loyal following from our more mature congregants, which grows with each passing year.
We run this program in partnership with another local synagogue and the JCC. Classes are taught by clergy, visiting scholars and specialists. We take a great deal of pride in this collaborative effort. Our congregation also has a love of music. Our spring concert is extremely popular and features our clergy as well as musical guests. Our worship services are full of spirited songs and uplifting melodies, and it’s not unusual for us to break into harmony!
Our social activities are popular among all of our age groups. The youth enjoy events such as Broadway shows, trips to the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., social action programs, and pizza parties. Our families love visits from the ice cream truck, barbecues, challah baking, and much more. Singing and dancing the night away at our Costumes and Karaoke Purim Party was a huge hit last year.
What programs and/or services do you think capture the synagogue’s underlying philosophy?
We are proud to have a food pantry. We work with other area congregations of all faiths to provide food and supermarket gift cards to those who are food insecure. Throughout the year, our social action committee and Sisterhood (WEEE – Women of Emanu-El Edison) collect hygiene products, school supplies, hats and scarves, and a number of other necessities for those in need.
Our youth group participates in Midnight Run, during which they provide food and personal supplies to a significant number of people experiencing hardships in New York City. We feel it is our responsibility to be of service wherever and whenever we are able. Tikkun Olam is of vital importance to us, and we hold all Jewish values close to our hearts. We do our best to have this reflected in all of our programs and services.
What is the most unique aspect of your synagogue?
Cantor Emily Simkin is our spiritual leader. She was ordained during the pandemic. Her clergy partner is Rabbi Vicki Axe, who began her career as a cantor and has decades of experience. This unique structure and pairing bring a different kind of energy and perspective to our community than you find in many. Our services are filled with music, shared wisdom and myriad lessons.
This team also brings a great variety of life experience and frame of reference to pastoral care and creates a feeling of inclusion among our age groups.
Another important area is our religious school. There is an energy and sense of acceptance that you don’t often find. Our religious school director, Lisa McNerney, has created an environment that is educational, full of humor, and open to personal expression. Our K-12 school is a place for all students to be curious and ready to explore.
Have you implemented any changes based on the COVID experience? What is the most unique aspect of your synagogue?
Much like many other houses of worship, we have discovered the benefits of offering many virtual experiences. Congregants who are homebound, unable to drive or are reluctant to be in crowds can still enjoy services from the comfort of their homes. Virtual meetings have made board and committee commitments more accessible to individuals who may have otherwise had a hard time attending due to work and family obligations.
During the pandemic, we created a membership category called Members Across the Miles. We have chosen to keep this category, which is for people who live at least 100 miles from our synagogue, and is a virtual membership with the privileges of a more traditional membership.
Are there any other challenges you’ve overcome that you’d like to share, so others can learn from your experience?
Almost one and a half years ago, we left the building we called home for nearly 60 years. Although a daunting task, this adventure was well thought out. We are busy finalizing plans for our new building and looking forward to breaking ground in September. Our new home will be built on the property of the JCC of Middlesex County. While we are going through the building process, we are working, enjoying programming and worshipping together in temporary space in the JCC.
The move began with a Torah Walk through the community and set the tone for our entry into our new space. We have done our best to keep our community connected throughout this process, which is, of course, the greatest challenge when in temporary space.
Our board calls our congregants to check on them, keep them informed and offer support. Our clergy and staff keep on top of concerns, communications, and strengthening the partnership with our new neighbors. Our committees plan activities that keep us together and create a feeling of home. We don’t always succeed, but we are learning as we go. We do our best to remain aware of what is successful and when we have to pivot. Most importantly, we hold one another up when we feel homesick or impatient while waiting for our structure to take shape. After all, our spiritual home is first made up of people, not walls.
What would you say to encourage someone to join your synagogue?
Temple Emanu-El strives to be an inclusive, warm and friendly community that values people of all races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, marital status, levels of observance, gender identities and sexual orientations. Whatever your background, we welcome you to join our community in prayer, service and Tikkun Olam, repairing the world.
At TEE, we consider diversity to be one of our greatest blessings. We have a long history of interfaith families becoming an integral part of our temple family. We believe we are stronger when we learn from and incorporate a rich variety of voices and perspectives; that doing so deepens our Jewishness; and that creating an inclusive community is part of repairing our world.
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.