Alex Weinberg became Temple Beth Sholom’s director of congregational learning in 2010. And in the 13 years he’s served this Conservative synagogue in Cherry Hill, he’s never seen higher enrollment numbers.
Temple Beth Sholom’s Early Childhood Education Center has about 100 students, according to Weinberg. Its K-6 religious school welcomes more than 200 kids each week. And its Hebrew high school counts another 100 students.
Weinberg is quick to credit his teachers.
“It’s a large school that feels small. I think parents appreciate that,” he said.
But the director of congregational learning also acknowledges that TBS benefits from circumstance.
“The Cherry Hill Jewish community is a good Jewish community,” he said of the South Jersey town with six synagogues and a JCC. “It’s a healthy place to start a family and raise kids.”
But so are other towns in South Jersey, and the Conservative shul may be benefiting from those, too. Weinberg said that nearby localities such as Medford and Moorestown used to send about five students to TBS’ schools. Today, though, that number is “much more than that.”
“All these things come together to create a vibrant Jewish community,” Weinberg said.
Like other Conservative and Reform synagogues, Temple Beth Sholom has lost members in the past 30 years. It had 1,000 families when Rabbi Albert Lewis, who served the congregation for 44 years, stepped down in 1992. This year, it counts more than 800 households, according to tbsonline.org.
But its schools have waiting lists. Its High Holiday services welcoming in 5784 packed more than 350 people into a tent in the synagogue parking lot. Post-COVID, it could be worse.
Weinberg said the community managed to stay connected even during the remote days of the pandemic in 2020. Leaders would create “home kits” for holidays and drop them off at people’s houses. They did this over and over, according to the director.
“Shuls live and thrive on the personal connections we create,” he said.
Hayley Feldman-Hills agrees. The mother of two joined TBS in 2018 with her husband and daughters. The family had moved to Cherry Hill from Jersey City, where they were not a part of a Jewish community.
“New York City is not the best at establishing community,” Feldman-Hills said.
The family did not know anyone in Cherry Hill when they moved, but they needed a school for their oldest daughter. The parents decided to try out TBS. They walked in “and the place just felt like family,” the mother said.
“People who were excited to be Jewish,” she added.
Feldman-Hills’ older daughter, Rivelle, went through the synagogue’s ECEC and had a positive experience, according to the mother. The personal attention she got from teachers helped the young girl build confidence.
“They helped her to love herself in a way that only somebody with a real authentic relationship and care and concern can,” said Feldman-Hills.
COVID came just a couple of years after the family joined the synagogue. But Feldman-Hills appreciated that Cantor Jen Cohen “would come do driveway visits at our house.”
“She made it her mission to be personal. She wanted to be there to check on everybody,” the member said.
Feldman-Hills’ family “suffered losses” during the pandemic. Each time, “the clergy was reaching out to me,” she said.
“How can we support you and hold you through this trauma?” she added.
A majority of TBS’ members come from Cherry Hill or Voorhees, according to Weinberg. After they put their kids through the synagogue’s ECEC, they often send them to the Voorhees-based Kellman Brown Academy.
Rachel Zivic, KBA’s head of school, is married to TBS’ senior rabbi, Micah Peltz. There’s a TBS-KBA scholarship fund to help with tuition, according to Zivic. Every year on Chanukah for seven years running, the institutions put on a firework show at which their respective choirs sing.
The synagogue sends its 4-year-old students to the day school each year to experience some of the activities there. And the day school organizes performances of its school plays for ECEC students.
“If our families are going to enroll outside the public schools, we hope they go there,” Weinberg said.
“It’s part of ensuring the Jewish future,” Zivic added. “We want to have students who are active in the synagogues who will raise their children to do the same.”
Zivic and Peltz are from Illinois and Minnesota, respectively. They had never been to South Jersey before taking their jobs in the late 2000s.
But now, it’s home.
“We moved to Cherry Hill both for TBS and KBA, and we would not have moved here without both,” Zivic said. “We came and we stayed.”