Shomrei is Our Namesake: Kol Nidre Sermon 5783/2022

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Julie originally gave this sermon during the Kol Nidre service, Oct 2022.

In 1918, at the age of 5, Joe Fine started attending religious school at Shomrei Emunah in the original building on Bloomfield Avenue.  He remembers being sent home a few years later, at the age of 8 or 9, for coming to High Holiday services dressed in a new cardigan sweater and trousers made by his grandfather because he wasn’t wearing a suit jacket.   When asked what the town of Montclair was like in the 1920’s, Joe described Bloomfield Avenue, starting at the corner of Maple, store by store, beginning with Wilensky’s department store, which was owned by Louie and his three brothers, Morris, Sammie, and Haimie and then continuing up the street to the pharmacy.

Joe remembered Martin’s pharmacy at the corner of Mission Street, and then Miller’s Market, and Abe Swersky’s building located near the old shoeshine shop.  Across the street was Gillerstein’s hardware store and near the corner of Hartley Street was Abe Rosenstein’s butcher shop.  His own father owned an auto glass repair shop at the corner of Elm and Bloomfield, not far from the grocery run by Abraham Rosenberg, the great-grandfather of a friend of mine. [1]

* * *

Our Congregation was founded in 1905 when Mr. Abraham Kurnish wanted to say Kaddish while sitting shiva to mourn the loss of a beloved family member.  He asked a group of men from Bloomfield and Montclair to join him for the minyan.  Shortly afterwards, 117 years ago this month, eighteen men from Bloomfield and Montclair came together for the first congregational meeting.  According to the hand-written minutes, Mr. Max Moses, the first president of the synagogue, “offered the premises of his business and the men and women gathered in the rear of his shop to davin.” [2]  A group of Jewish shopkeepers founded a congregation and named it Shomrei Emunah, ‘Keepers of the Faith’.

* * *

I’ve been curious about why the founders of our congregation chose the name “Shomrei Emunah’ and what this name means to us today.  But there are few records from those early years and even Joe Fine, the oldest living congregant at the time of his interview in 1995, didn’t reveal the answer.  Not ready to give up, I reached out by email to Dr. Jonathan Sarna, the well-known Brandeis professor of American Jewish history who writes about the historical significance of synagogue names in his book, American Judaism.

To my delight, he wrote back, saying, though I don’t discuss the name “Shomrei Emunah” in my book, I did a quick google search revealing half a dozen shuls by that name, all of them Conservative or Orthodox.

This led Sarna to believe that religiously inclined Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America and felt guilty about coming to a country widely known as a “treifene medinah” (a non-kosher country) started our synagogue.  Sarna wrote, sometimes “founders used synagogue names to express their resolve to keep the commandments, even in America”.  I then asked my friend Seth Goren, who’s great-grandfather was one of the shul’s founders, where Abraham Rosenberg the grocer was born and sure enough, he was born in Dolhiniv, Belarus in 1880 and immigrated with his tefillin to the United States around 1905.  And in 1905, when our newly founded congregation borrowed a Torah from a congregation in Newark, called ‘Anshe Russia’ – ‘People of Russia’ Joe Fine believes that was the same Torah his grandmother and his mother Yetta brought over from Europe when they settled in Newark in either 1888 or 1889.[3]

* * *

Today, most of us immigrate to Montclair from Brooklyn or Hoboken, or occasionally Jersey City, San Francisco, or even Princeton.  We move here for similar reasons as Joe Fine did in the 1900’s and Molly Schrager in the 1950’s – for work, for family, and for leafy trees and streams near a train to New York City.   And we join the synagogue, as they did, for friendship and a sense of belonging, to preserve Jewish traditions, and to gather as community in both good times and bad times.   I’ve heard many of you kindly say to me, we feel lucky to have you as our new rabbi.  I want you to know the feeling is mutual.  I feel so lucky to have you as my congregation.

We moved here for work (obviously) but also for family.  We don’t have any family here in Montclair, but when I worked on campus, I often celebrated Shabbat and holidays with college students while Justus and the kids were home or with other families at the local synagogue.  I moved here so my family could be part of the same community where I work as the rabbi.    We also wanted to be part of a progressive community with tree-lined streets, access to a boathouse for rowing, and a much shorter commute to New York for Justus.

On a deeper level we moved for the opportunity to be part of a community that already embraced open-door Judaism as Michael Sag, our president spoke about so beautifully on Rosh Hashanah.   I wanted to be the rabbi of a community that loves to sing and yearns to feel spiritually alive in synagogue.  I wanted to be the rabbi in a place that would challenge me with tough questions and give me new insights into Torah when we study together.  I wanted to join a community committed to feeding the hungry and welcoming refugees, a community with a mensch squad that takes care of our families when they hit a rough patch.  I wanted to lead a community that was curious to see how traditions could be joyful, relevant, and infused with new energy.  I wanted to be part of a community powered by volunteers.

* * *

Part of the reason I was so curious about our namesake was because nowadays most of us simply call the synagogue, Shomrei, dropping the Emunah part all together.  Even though I think faith is very important, whether faith in God with room for questions or faith in humanity as our Lily Lucey spoke about so eloquently last year, I actually love that we just call ourselves Shomrei.  The word Shomrei means ‘keepers’ or ‘guardians’, protectors of something precious.

When we simply call ourselves ‘Shomrei” that leaves it open-ended for each of us to decide what is most valuable and inspiring to us about Judaism and Jewish community.  The word Shomrei is plural and active.  Just as the founders needed a minyan to say Kaddish, we need an entire community of people, working together, to be guardians, even if or maybe because each of us is drawn to different aspects of this ancient heritage we share.  A lot of synagogue names are nouns rather than verbs, houses, ritual objects, people.  But guardians are only guardians when actively engaged.

* * *

Without a doubt, the Hebrew word l’shmor in all its grammatical manifestations, appears most often in the Torah in connection to keeping the commandments, the laws, the covenant, and the Torah.  There are over 125 times in the Torah when our namesake appears in connection to preserving Jewish tradition.    Sometimes I understand that too narrowly, as only referring to the ritual commandments like keeping Shabbat or Passover when actually being shomer mitzvot refers to all of the commandments, both the ritual ones and the ethical ones.   When we are guardians of our faith, we’re preserving Jewish values both by celebrating the holidays and by helping the poor.

And in one instance when God is speaking to Abraham, it’s clear that we are called not only to preserve our tradition’s legacy of holiness but also of justice.  God singles out Abraham, v’shamru derech Adonai la’asot tzedakah u’mishpat, telling him to instruct his children and the generations that come after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right. [4]

The verb lishmor, often appears accompanied by other verbs, for example lishmor v’la’asot, indicating that guarding or preserving or keeping is somehow different from doing.  It also means that simply doing something as it’s always been done doesn’t necessarily preserve it.   This past Shabbat, Shabbat teshuvah, we read about the final commandment in the Torah, the mitzvah for each and every member of our community to write a Torah scroll for themself.    In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “it is not enough to say, “we received the Torah from Moses,” or “from our parents. We have to take the Torah and make it new in every generation.  We have to write our own scroll.

The point is not that the Torah is old but that it is new; it is not just about the past, but about the future…It speaks to us, here, now – but not without our making the effort to write it again.”[5]

* * *

When Mollie Schrager moved to Montclair in 1949 to be reunited with her sister after the Holocaust, she and her husband Sam joined our synagogue right away and opened up a store on Church Street selling the best pocketbooks and leather goods.  In her words, “everyone got a good deal, why not?”  When a kid came in to buy a gift for their mother, sometimes they didn’t have enough money, but Mollie gave it to them anyway.   Her customers were very loyal.  It was Molly’s care and attention in helping them pick out a very nice gift, just the right gift, that kept the customers coming back year after year.   Her son Manny told me in those days, a lady’s pocketbook had to match her shoes so women would bring a shoe with them to the store when shopping.  If Molly didn’t have the right pocketbook, she would keep the shoe, and once a week she’d travel into Manhattan with a bag full of shoes of different colors and go to her favorite suppliers and pick out the matching pocketbook, one by one.

As a shopkeeper, Molly teaches us an important lesson about what it means for us to keepers, Shomrei, of this precious tradition we have inherited.  In order to be Shomrei, each one of us, needs to find the gift within Judaism, that is right for us.   Each one of us, needs to find the volunteer opportunity that matches our passions and interests and skills and yearnings.  And as your rabbi, I hope to get to know you deeply and personally and then once I see a glimpse of the color of your inner landscape, to help you find the perfect matching gift within Judaism.  This is one of the reasons I love the size of our synagogue.  As a community, I want us to help each other find the Jewish experiences that will really speak to us, that will stir our souls.  And if it doesn’t exist yet, then let’s build it together.

* * *

When Justus and I were deciding whether to accept the invitation to come to Montclair, to come to Shomrei, we asked ourselves what are the conditions of this soil?  If the synagogue is like a garden, are the conditions of the soil fertile so that if I till and tend it, it will grow and flourish?   The first time the verb lishmor appears in the Torah is in connection to the Garden of Eden.  God asks us l’ovdah u’lshomrah, to till and tend it.

Looking around at the people who are part of this congregation and seeing we cared about and yearned for the same things, we felt yes, yes this synagogue has the potential to be creative and to flourish and to grow and maybe, eventually, to become one of the best synagogues in America.  But I cannot tend this garden alone.  That’s why we’re called ‘Shomrei’, in the plural.  This garden that Jewish shopkeepers planted 117 years ago can only flourish if each one of us contributes with the work of our hands and the work of our hearts to till and to tend, to learn and to teach, to preserve, to do, and to write our own Torah, to help each other find the perfect match from within the treasure trove of our tradition.   And in this way, we will we be worthy of our namesake, Shomrei.  In this way, we will preserve and reinvent this precious legacy we call Judaism with joy, compassion, new insights, active engagement, and deep connection.

Kein y’hi ratzon.  May it be God’s will.
Rabbi Julie

[1] Oral History Interview of Joe Fine, October 5, 1995 (cassette tape).

[2] ‘Historical Sketches of Temple Shomrei Emunah’, p. 2 published in 1955.

[3] Combined oral history and written history, Torah borrowed from ‘Anshe Russia’ in Newark.

[4] Genesis 18:19.

[5] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ‘The Torah as Song, Vayelech.’

Rabbi Julie Roth
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