People have different reasons for joining Congregation Brothers of Israel, but ultimately they have the same reason.
The congregants at the Conservative synagogue in Newtown are warm and welcoming almost the minute you walk in the door. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never seen you before.
Many have experienced this, though no one can quite say when or how it started. Joan Hersch, the synagogue’s education director and the wife of its rabbi emeritus, said it was present even when she joined as a single mother 44 years ago. No one minded that she was a single mother.
This culture is just a feature of a 140-year-old institution that still counts 142 families in its congregation.
“We like to have people become part of our family,” Hersch said.
Such stories, ones like Hersch’s, abound among CBOI members.
Rabbi Aaron Gaber joined the community eight years ago and, during his interview/weekend visit, his daughter got sick. Brothers of Israel members kept asking how they could help.
Congregant Amy Deutsch, who joined 14 years ago, is a convert to Judaism who often brings her non-Jewish family members for services. Her fellow congregants are always friendly to her family members and willing to direct them to the right page in the prayer book.
CBOI administrator Sharon Segarra learned about the community 25 years ago when she attended the consecration of her friend’s son. At that event, Hersch approached her and started talking to her. The education director told Segarra a story about a bar mitzvah for a child who had special needs; Segarra’s son is on the spectrum. She, like so many others, decided to join.
That spirit is alive and well in the Newtown congregation, members say. During the pandemic, CBOI gained a handful of new families.
Hersch credits the continuation of this positive energy to Gaber. When he took over in 2014, the rabbi was inheriting a long legacy. He also had a rabbi emeritus, Howard Hersch, Joan’s husband, who was still in the building after leading the congregation from 1960 to 2007.
It wasn’t an easy position to step into, but to his credit, the new rabbi did not change anything. He only added.
In other words, Gaber maintained CBOI’s culture while expanding its offerings. He started new adult education classes; he continued and normalized the Conservative synagogue’s transition toward allowing women onto the bimah; and he got the synagogue more involved in social action efforts in the wider community.
Once the pandemic broke out, the rabbi moved CBOI programming online. More than two years later, the Newtown synagogue, like many synagogues, offers a wide variety of hybrid programming.
“Over the last eight years, we’ve done really well together,” Gaber said. “We’re growing together.”
In 2021, CBOI adopted a new mission statement.
“CBOI is an egalitarian community of caring and diverse people, who strive to be connected to our faith, families and larger community. We are a growing, evolving and inclusive congregation, enjoying and enriching Jewish life together,” it reads.
To live up to that mission statement, synagogue members spent the past year listening to community groups and organizations in Bucks County. They wanted to figure out how they could better help the community, and they settled on two core focus areas: food insecurity and inequity in education.
Recently, congregants packed boxes of food at the Jewish Relief Agency and then delivered them to homes. They also collected children’s books and donated them to a Cherry Hill, New Jersey-based nonprofit called BookSmiles, which distributes books to schools. Gaber said the latter effort would be an ongoing partnership.
“And the kids really love doing that,” said Roz Zucker, the synagogue’s co-president. “Giving gently used books to children who wouldn’t have them otherwise.”
As it moves forward, though, Brothers of Israel faces the same existential question that all synagogues face today: Why do people need a synagogue? Gaber and his congregants don’t have the answer.
But with their welcoming culture at the core of everything they do, they feel confident in their ability to figure it out, they say. Plus, the longtime members are not going anywhere.
Congregation Brothers of Israel is their home.
Segarra, Hersch and Zucker all moved with the community from Trenton, New Jersey, to Newtown in 2007. And they would move with it again if they had to, they say.
“It’s not a building. Brothers of Israel is truly a community,” Hersch said. “It’s the people and the idea of Jewish life that keeps me.” JE