In July 2022, Benjamin Negin took over as president of Congregation B’nai Tikvah Beth Israel. As the synagogue’s new leader, he had one major initiative: reopening after COVID-19.
“WE ARE BACK,” he wrote on cbtbi.org.
Since reopening that fall, the South Jersey synagogue has gained five households to increase to 130 overall. Its religious school has 50 students. Groups for teenagers and seniors have formed and organized activities like building the sukkah and having informative talks on issues like health insurance.
As Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld explained, CBTBI is the only shul “in 20 minutes every direction.” The Sewell, Gloucester County-based synagogue attracts families from Sewell, Woodbury, Pitman, Paulsboro, Washington Township, Mullica Hill and Glassboro.
“If you look at a map and you draw a circle, we have everyone,” Negin said.
The rabbi arrived more than a year before COVID-19. She had done part-time rabbinical work in Boston while raising her children through their baby and toddler years. Now that they were older, she was ready for a full-time job.
Schoenfeld thought she found it in this cozy old church building with narrow halls, faded paint on the walls and green grass around it. But then the pandemic became an existential crisis.
“We didn’t really have a digital presence,” Negin said.
With the help of some younger congregants who understood technology, CBTBI pivoted. It hosted Shabbat services and adult education courses online. Schoenfeld started a weekly community check-in.
The remote situation motivated the rabbi to connect with more members. Maybe 50 were active before 2020. But in 2020, Schoenfeld started going through her member rolls and calling people. Synagogue leaders wanted to assure people that shul life would continue.
“The conversation was, ‘OK, we’re closing down, but we’re not closing down,’” the rabbi said. “’We’re just going to be open in a different way.’”
And it remains open in a different way.
By 2021, CBTBI was able to host High Holiday services outside on its property on East Holly Avenue. And those outdoor gatherings have continued.
On Tashlich this year, a woman “who almost has never showed up for anything” showed up, Schoenfeld said. She was “very health conscious” but also wanted to “connect in person.” Another woman couldn’t get out of her car but came to Tashlich anyway.
“The community loved seeing her,” Schoenfeld said.
Shortly after reopening in September 2022, CBTBI held congregational meetings to discuss its future. Eighty-five people attended, according to Negin. They said they wanted the “better outreach” that started during COVID-19 to continue.
Post-COVID-19, it has.
The senior group hosts seminars with different speakers from the group. One member is an “insurance guy,” Negin said. So, he explained insurance to the group. Another member discussed how to switch your individual retirement account to “make it better for you.”
“Let’s learn from each other and then eat,” the rabbi said.
The youth group does a monthly event run by a different family each month. Last year, it went to the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It also organized a Chanukah party and a hamantaschen baking day. On Oct. 1, the group visited a retirement community.
A recent youth group event was a potluck with tech support. Basically, the teens got together with the seniors to help them with their iPads and iPhones. They also ate.
Negin said that as a father, he wants to teach his kids to be “part of a community.” The synagogue is not just a school, he explained. When you come to synagogue, “what you’re really learning to do is being part of and continuing the Jewish community.”
“Judaism isn’t just a thing for when you’re elderly and thinking about life,” Schoenfeld added. “It’s something that needs the energy of kids.”
Negin said that if in 20 years CBTBI is still here, he’ll be satisfied.
“All those families who come in and they want their kid to go to religious school, to become bar and bat mitzvah, to have Jewish friends, they’re finding us,” the president said. “I don’t see us growing. My guess is we’ll be of similar size.”
Schoenfeld mentioned that she moved her family here “to be with this congregation.”
“It feels so good to know that I could be here for a long time,” she said.