Bay Ridge Jewish Center draws young families into the faith
But synagogue also values its older members, rabbi says
Bay Ridge is becoming known in Brooklyn for its large and rapidly growing population of Arab-Americans, many of whom live near busy Fifth Avenue, where they shop in halal meat markets and buy clothing in boutiques catering to a Middle Eastern clientele.
But one block away, on Fourth Avenue, a small but vibrant synagogue is home to the neighborhood’s small but faithful Jewish community.
The Bay Ridge Jewish Center, on Fourth Avenue and 81st Street, was established in 1919 and is still growing strong today, 95 years later, thanks to its active congregation and its dynamic young rabbi.
Rabbi Dina Rosenberg, who was only in her 20’s when she arrived at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center two and a half years ago, has made it her mission to draw young families to the synagogue to ensure its future while at the same time honoring the past by paying special attention to the needs of the older members of the congregation.
Her efforts appear to be paying off. There were 130 people at the center’s recent Purim celebration, in which children came to the event dressed in costumes. Two years ago, 50 people came. The numbers are growing. This year, the rabbi also joined in the fun and wore a costume herself.
Services at the synagogue have a playful, yet respectful, atmosphere. Children bring their own tiny toy Torahs, which resemble the real thing. Rosenberg has also been known to interrupt her sermon to answer a question about Judaism from an eight-year-old.
“I want children and families to look forward to coming here. I want them to think of this as a place filled with joy and fun,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle during an interview in her office at the center on April 23.
The center serves all age groups. There is a Hebrew school for children and a program in which volunteers bring kosher meals to visit elderly shut-ins.
Within the next few months, the center will host a gala for one of its oldest members, a man in his 90s, whose family helped establish the Bay Ridge Jewish Center right after World War I.
“There is so much wisdom among our older members,” Rosenberg said.
The center also pays close attention to the needs of families with young children. Among Rosenberg’s initiatives is Tot Shabbat, a Friday night get-together where families can bring their small children (up to age five) to start teaching them about the faith.
Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath.
The center has a Children’s Corner, filled with toys, games and books. Kids are encouraged to spend as much time as they want in the corner, even bring toys to their seats in the sanctuary.
The kids are also encouraged to help out in the center’s community garden.
Prior to the recent Passover holiday, a group of young congregation members visited the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and learned how to make their own matzos. “It was fun and everyone had a great time,” Rosenberg said.
On the first Friday of every month, the rabbi hosts Family Shabbat, which includes a dinner after the service. Rosenberg likes to incorporate a theme into her service to make the lesson more enjoyable for her congregation.
For one recent Family Shabbat, she talked about baseball. At the dinner, she wore a Mets cap and talked religion while congregation members munched on hot dogs and hamburgers.
Dozens of young people in their 20s and 30s ended their Passover fasts by enjoying plates filled with delicious macaroni and pizza, while downing a few beers at a special event the rabbi organized.
“I think it’s a great way for people to meet each other and get to know each other. People come here and they get to know me, but they don’t necessarily get to know each other. I wanted to change that,” she told the Eagle.
Rosenberg, who has run in the New York City Marathon wearing a shirt with the words “Running Rabbi,” also started a running group in the center. One of its members, who never ran in a race before, recently completed a 5-K race.
Rosenberg was welcomed as rabbi of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center just a few months after her ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. While training to be a rabbi, she served many diverse congregations all over the U.S., including Biloxi, Mississippi and Watertown, New York, according to the center’s website.
More exciting events are being planned. The center is planning its first group trip to Israel in early 2015. To prepare, the participating members of the congregation will be taking part in a program called “Step Up For Israel” over the next few months.
Rosenberg conducts Hebrew classes for adults who might have fallen away from the Jewish faith and are looking for a way to come back. “There are always ways to engage people more,” she said.
During the interview, Rosenberg was quick to praise the center’s board of directors, as well as its dedicated volunteers who assist with every program. “I need partners to build this community,” she said.
Under the rabbi’s leadership, the center has shown its respect for Jewish history.
The congregation recently hosted a multi-faith service in commemoration of Kristallnacht, the infamous “Night of Broken Glass,” the November, 1938 attack on Jews by Nazis in Germany. A highlight of the service was the performance by Bella Voce, a group that performed songs created out of passages of Anne Frank’s diary.
The center will mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom Ha’Shoah, on April 27 with a brunch and a film.
For more information on the Bay Ridge Jewish Center and its activities, call 718-836-3103.
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