NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Anshe Emeth is celebrating its 160th anniversary this weekend by engaging in the same sort of community-service activities that congregants of this synagogue have been doing for generations.
Some will take part in programs to help the Ronald McDonald House or Elijah’s Promise, a community kitchen just across Livingston Avenue.
Others will be help make welcome baskets for Interfaith-RISE, a regional refugee resettlement program.
And of course, there’s always sorting that needs to be done at the Central Jersey Diaper Bank that was founded and is run by Anshe Emeth members out of the synagogue. It has distributed some 175,000 diapers this year alone to new parents throughout the community.
Yes, there will be a lot going on this weekend inside the stone masonry walls of the temple - Shabbat services on Friday night and Saturday morning, Torah study and adult education programs on Saturday and more.
Setting Sunday aside as a day for mitzvot - a Hebrew word that literally translates to "commandments" but can best be defined as good deeds - is in keeping with the synagogue’s long and rich history.
“Anshe Emeth has always been plugged into the lifeblood of New Brunswick,” Rabbi Philip Bazeley said, pointing as far back as World War II when a women’s auxiliary group in the synagogue would collect diapers and baby food to distribute to those in need.
It’s been that way l’dor v’dor – from generation to generation.
Anshe Emeth is a vibrant center for Jewish life with more than 500 families that come from more than 40 communities surrounding New Brunswick. On their way here from Plainsboro, Princeton, Hillsborough and other towns, they pass other Reform Judaism temples.
Truth is, Bazeley said, very few of the congregants still live in New Brunswick. He said there was a time in the 1970s, when Jews began leaving the city in favor of suburban life in Edison, East Brunswick and other nearby towns.
Anshe Emeth found itself facing a question: Should it move out of the city, too?
Bazeley said the leaders of the shul – Yiddish for synagogue – decided that if they left, there would be no one to step in and provide the social services they had been providing.
“And essentially what we became at that point was not a synagogue of convenience – this is the local place, I’m going to go here,” Bazeley said. “We became a place of purpose that you would feel driven to come which really has cemented how we got to where we are right now.”
As if turning 160 isn’t cause enough for celebration, the synagogue rejoiced when it was revealed during the recent Rosh Hoshanah services that the mortgage was all but paid off thanks to the generosity of the members. Bazeley said he’s already started thinking about setting aside a time during Lag B’Omer – a holiday in May when it’s customary to start bonfires - to burn the mortgage.
Services here are dynamic, lively and beautiful. Shabbat services are accompanied by an organist and a cantor, Anna West Ott, who chants in an operatic tone. The Amidah, Shema and other prayers - the voices of thousands who have come here to pray to God over the decades seem to almost reverberate under the vaulted roof inside the sanctuary. The way the light cascades through the stained-glass windows on a sunny Saturday morning creates an ethereal glow.
The experience in this sanctuary is as important as it has ever been over the past 160 years, Bazeley said. The world is full of strife and division. This sanctuary, this synagogue has the power to heal and connect, Bazeley said.
"I think what people are finding is that we need community more than ever, that the internet communities that we create are not the same as real communities and that we need to be a part of not only a friendship circle, but a circle that’s doing something substantive," he said.