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Teaneck’s Youth Movement

Teaneck’s Youth Movement

Modern Orthodox twenty- and thirty-somethings carving out their niche in established community.

The Bergen County suburbs of Teaneck, Englewood and Paramus, N.J., have lured generations of Jewish families with a wealth of attractions — great schools, pretty tree-lined streets, terrific shopping and an unbeatable location, just over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.

And then there are the local Jewish amenities, nearly unrivaled in their breadth. Diners can find anything from hipster cupcakes to Southern barbecue among the dozens of kosher eateries in Teaneck, the regional Jewish nexus. Judaica shops are flourishing, mikvehs are expanding, and there are more synagogues and minyanim than anyone can easily count.

For a newcomer, “it can be a little intimidating,” admitted Erik Kessler, who moved to Teaneck from Manhattan three years ago. So Kessler, his wife Dana and about 200 other couples in their 20s and early 30s have made their own niche by joining a small minyan organized by residents of the Terrace Circle Apartments complex.

The intimacy of shared age and experience provides Kessler and his peers a personal route into this large, established Jewish community. “It’s less institutional; it’s more relaxed,” said Kessler, the director of admissions and communications at the Moriah School, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva in Englewood. Most of the group’s couples recently moved from New York and have been married only a year or two. The minyan has been meeting weekly for almost a decade; two years ago, they hired a rabbi for their services, which are held at the Torah Academy of Bergen County.

The Terrace Circle group is just one of many such minyanim — newer, smaller and younger than the established temples — that have sprung up around Teaneck and Englewood in recent years. They stand as evidence that as the Jewish community evolves over generations, with a growing Orthodox presence and a pronounced shift toward day school education, newcomers will find a way to make Teaneck and Englewood their proud hometowns.

That grassroots local spirit has long defined Teaneck and Englewood, even as its demographic complexion has shifted, according to Toni Nayowitz. “These are proud, fine suburban communities, very family-oriented,” said Nayowitz, co-owner of Judaica House in Teaneck, which has thrived in several area locations since its founding in 1974. “The whole spectrum of Jewish residents is involved in the community, in local politics, in our schools.”

The common trajectory is for young couples to raise a family here after leaving Manhattan — and with such a plethora of resources, both Jewish and secular, many never miss “the city.”

“I think this area of Teaneck has really taken off because there are over 30 kosher restaurants, and the apartment complex is within walking distance of a lot of them,” said Kessler of where he lives, a semi-urban environment that reminds him of Manhattan’s vibrant street life. “It’s home grown, it’s fairly diverse. And for Orthodox families, there’s no better place to live.”

And cutting-edge medical care is available right in Teaneck at Holy Name Medical Center, an 85-year-old Teaneck institution.

Holy Name “is committed to never losing that caring, local atmosphere,” even as its services expand, said Jackie Kates, the center’s community relations coordinator. Indeed, Holy Name has outreach programs tailored to its surrounding populations; for its large observant Jewish clientele, there is a Sabbath elevator and a Sabbath family room with a fully stocked kosher lounge, and it is the only area hospital accredited by Jewish Hospice, Kates noted.

While the area’s Orthodox synagogues continue to grow in number, many families are affiliated with Teaneck’s Reform congregations, Temple Emeth and Temple Beth Am. Local Conservative options include Congregation Beth Sholom and the Paramus Jewish Community Center.

Teaneck’s Orthodox leaders frequently use the term “progressive” to describe their community and institutions, which are overwhelmingly Modern Orthodox. This outlook is evident at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, formerly Reconstructionist and later Conservative, which recently transitioned to “progressive Orthodoxy” in a reflection of demographic shifts. And it is reflected in the liberal, outreach-oriented Union for Traditional Judaism, a Teaneck Modern Orthodox organization with a focus on Jewish communal and educational development.

Kates, who has served as Teaneck’s mayor and recently stepped down from the township council, said that even as area demographics have shifted in favor of Orthodoxy, Teaneck retains the spirit that drew her own parents to settle their family here a half-century ago.

“The liberal, progressive Jewish families who moved to Teaneck during that time, and their Christian friends, built that community that is known now for its progressiveness, its inclusion, those institutions that made it the Jewish center of Bergen County,” said Kates, who said her parents chose Teaneck partly for its commitment to racially integrated public schools.

Indeed, the area’s diversity is notable: Teaneck’s Jews are estimated to constitute nearly half the local population, while the new mayor is a Muslim, two mosques are thriving, and church services now feature Spanish for the growing number of Hispanic residents.

But according to Kates, who returned here to raise her own children, Teaneck’s core attractions haven’t changed in four decades: “It’s the diversity, the beauty of the town, and its proximity to New York.

“This is a well-laid out, tree-lined community, with beautiful homes — now, there are some beautiful McMansions,” Kates said with a laugh. “We’re really a suburban-looking urban community – we don’t have the high-rises that Hackensack and Fort Lee do, but we’re the second-largest, demographically, in Bergen County.”

Education remains a major draw for Jewish families, though public schools are increasingly bypassed in favor of religious options. Orthodox institutions include the Moriah School, which serves about 900 boys and girls from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade; in Paramus, the Yavneh Academy and the Frisch School; Yeshivat Noam in Bergenfield; Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; and the Sephardic-oriented Ben Porat Yosef in Leonia.

Single-sex high schools in Teaneck are the Torah Academy for boys and Ma’ayanot for girls. And a growing number of Conservative families send their children to the Conservative-affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which currently offers preschool through eighth grade in nearby New Milford. Given Teaneck’s strategic location, parents can plausibly consider other schools in Manhattan, Westchester and the Bronx as well.

Dr. Kalman Stein, principal of the 625-student Frisch School, a co-ed high school, characterized Teaneck and Englewood as a community that takes its intellectual life seriously.

To meet that need, he said, “we have a very sophisticated interdisciplinary curriculum, with a strong emphasis on the development of critical thinking skills. We encourage students, in a Modern Orthodox context, to see the world in a holistic rather than a compartmentalized fashion.”

But if finding a good education is easy here, paying for it is not. Yeshiva tuition is a challenge for many families in suburbs where the taxes on a single-family house can easily reach $15,000 or more annually. With more and more families opting out of the once-renowned public schools, frustration runs high among local taxpayers.

Indeed, economic issues have been at the forefront of local concern in recent years, as Bergen County towns struggle with budget crises and unemployment.

These woes may not be immediately apparent on Cedar Lane, the newly-spruced-up heart of Teaneck’s downtown shopping district, or in the bustling shops along Queen Anne Road. Paramus, with a more modest Jewish population, draws shoppers from across the region to its chain-filled malls, easily accessed via Routes 4 and 17.

But merchants complain that downtown business districts struggle to remain viable, given their inability to open on Sundays. Bergen County shops must remain shuttered on that day, due to one of the nation’s last blue laws. There is no question that such laws have a disproportionate negative affect on Orthodox Jews, who cannot shop or do business on Saturdays, either. But many argue that loosening business restrictions is a matter of economics and not religion: shoppers go where stores are open, bringing their Sunday dollars and tax revenue elsewhere.

“The first word on everyone’s lips now that we have a new council is, lower the property taxes,” said Nayowitz, “and the revenue has to come from somewhere.” Meanwhile, supporters of the blue laws argue that the weekly reprieve from traffic is worth the revenue trade-off.

Even in hard times, Teaneck and Englewood are attractive to a steady flow of new residents, who are drawn by a flexible housing market and who, like Kessler, make their own social niche. “Now the Orthodox community is putting down its own roots, with a second generation buying up garden apartments and starting their own families,” observed Kates.

“It’s not a homogenous Orthodox community, either. This remains a vibrant place, where people have the opportunity to live and interact with people of many different backgrounds every day — at the library, the park, everywhere you go.”

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