Temple Micah has met for religious services at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville since its founding 50 years ago. The synagogue, still going strong, has 50 to 60 worshippers Friday nights, 200 on the High Holidays, and over 90 students in its religious school. The community prides itself on its inclusive community, lack of affiliation with any Jewish movement, shared building, and low cost—values that were there from the beginning.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the congregation will join with fellow congregants and the wider community on March 23, 7:30 p.m., for a Havdalah service and a reception, with music, dancing, eating, and more.
Lawrence resident and current president Ivy Cohen grew up in a largely Jewish community, but in Lawrenceville, which had fewer Jews, she and her husband wanted to make available to their kids “the Jewish traditions and values” that they had grown up with. And Temple Micah has been right for them.
“It feels like it has a great sense of community,” Cohen said. “It’s connecting to your religion and your background in a way that’s comfortable and meaningful.”
Hopewell resident Judy Livingston, a former board member, came to Temple Micah over 30 years ago because she had liked when her previous synagogue shared a building with a church—this meant it hadn’t had to focus on paying a mortgage and increasing membership and also because of her commitment to interfaith dialogue.
“I think what I like best about the congregation is that it’s just hamish [Yiddish for homelike and unpretentious]; nobody is showing off at the service,” Livingston said. “It’s like we just came together to sing, to say prayers, and to be together.”
Livingston realized at the interfaith service after the Pittsburgh attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, just how much Temple Micah meant to her.
“It felt like the best way to respond to the hatred in Pittsburgh was to be together with a congregation that was not Jewish and a congregation that was Jewish and all of us standing up together and saying, ‘You’re wrong, we can get along, we are stronger together.’” she said.
Jeff Vamos, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville for 15 years, felt similarly that “it was a really important thing in my congregation and for Temple Micah that we were present with them.”
Bordentown resident Larry Leder, president from 2013 to 2016 and a board member for 15 years, was, like many Temple Micah members, part of an interfaith marriage and has “found a spiritual home” at Temple Micah.
Princeton resident Adrienne Rubin, cantorial soloist at Temple Micah for 21 years, cites Hamilton resident Faith Wight as emblematic of those who have kept Temple Micah running. The willingness of volunteers to step forth at Temple Micah is one critical element in keeping costs low and creating a sense of community, Rubin says. Wight “ran all of the onegs [desserts after services] for years—an example of the kind of volunteer that has made Temple Micah what it is, always doing what is needed. She taught in the religious school [for 19 years]; she always stepped up.” Wight was also on the board for 25 years, where she served as vice president. Bob Pollack, former president of Temple Micah, calls her “the rock of Temple Micah.”
“Temple Micah has so many people like that who give of themselves because they love this community,” Rubin says.
Wight writes in an email, “My entire family benefited from Temple Micah,” she said. “My children had their baby namings, Bat Mitzvahs, I was Bat Mitzvahed at 41 and my husband Charlie converted 8 years ago.”
The synagogue got its start in 1969, when Paula Sass-Connelly (then Gottlieb, and her husband Stuart) gathered with a small group of Lawrenceville residents at her home, with the goal of creating a synagogue.
“We didn’t have a temple near us, and we wanted something to call our own,” she said. “We also wanted a wonderfully open place where everyone would feel comfortable, no matter how they thought about religion personally—that they would have a home there.”
Sass-Connelly, who moved in 1979 to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she worked for the state board of education, recalls “the incredible excitement in creating this little community.”
Sass-Connelly knew Reverend Dana Fearon of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville through Lawrenceville Elementary School, where she taught first to third grades, and she thought the church would be a great place to meet.
“I don’t know what made me think of Reverend Fearon, except that I loved the church,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful, peaceful, and calm inside. There were not a lot of Christian symbols; and I remember thinking, what a wonderful idea if we could meet here.”
Sharing a building also made sense for another reason. “We didn’t want all sorts of restrictions and didn’t want to charge huge amounts of money for membership—all of the things that with buildings you must get involved with,” Sass-Donnelly says.
So she talked to Fearon, and he talked to his trustees. A letter dated Sept. 9, 1969 approved Temple Micah use of the church’s sanctuary for its High Holiday services and other services for a year, after which they would “review the relationship.”
Temple Micah’s 50-year relationship with the Presbyterian Church was key to its survival, Pollack said. Committed to keeping costs down, the initial membership dues were $150 for a family and $75 for a young couple under 30, and, Pollack says, for the first several years they struggled to meet expenses. To help out, the synagogue’s treasurer, Jerry Weisbrodt, who was a vice president at the Educational Testing Service, arranged for synagogue members to grade SAT essays and donate what they earned to Temple Micah. By the late 1970s, Pollack says, contributions had increased, and they had some money in the bank.
Temple Micah hired its first rabbi, Albert Ginsburgh, a year after its founding. Describing Ginsburgh as “the perfect grandfather, the sweetest man in the world,” Pollack also emphasized his willingness to perform intermarriages, despite his traditional European rabbinical training.
Ginsburgh also had a good sense of humor and a casual approach. At one brutally hot High Holiday service, back when every man wore a suit and tie, Pollack recalls Ginsburgh taking off his jacket and loosening his tie and saying, “Now everybody, this is what God wants you to do—to be comfortable.”
But when his wife, Fruma received an offer in the mid-1980s to become head of the gynecology group at the Harvard Clinic in Boston, Ginsburgh followed, although he commuted to Temple Micah for the High Holidays and monthly Sabbath services for five or six years.
Rabbi Ellen Greenspan, now rabbi educator at Emanual Beth Shalom, the only Reform synagogue in Quebec province, joined Temple Micah in 1991, when she was in her early 30s. Greenspan never expected to remain for long with a congregation that only held regular services monthly, but she came to appreciate the role played by this unique congregation and stayed for 20 years.
“They are a synagogue for people who, for whatever reason, can’t find a community elsewhere that fits for them,” she said. “For the most part, for people who belong, if Temple Micah didn’t exist, they wouldn’t belong anywhere.”
“I don’t think it ever occurred to them that having a young woman as rabbi would attract young families,” she says, but it did. In fact, upon her arrival, the religious school was tiny—eight kids taught by a Princeton University student. Then “all of a sudden there were 40ish kids.” That meant she had to supervise religious school, and also lead increasing numbers of bar and bat mitzvahs by the time she left Temple Micah.
During Greenspan’s long tenure, Temple Micah switched to more gender-sensitive, contemporary prayer books, lengthened the Yom Kippur services to last the entire day and instituted a family service that day, hired Adrienne Rubin as their cantorial soloist, and bought a used Torah scroll.
Plainsboro’s Ray Wolkind, who eventually became vice-president, spoke to Greenspan’s role in improving the religious school. She “was pretty instrumental in getting us to recognize we needed to do the school and do it right,” he said.
For Rubin, Temple Micah is “a very unique community.” Not only is it welcoming to interfaith and interracial individuals, but it draws from all the liberal Jewish denominations. “You can observe at the level you want without fear of judgment,” she said. “I think when Temple Micah was established, that was something very new—we don’t subscribe to a specific theology.”
“We’ve made a deliberate decision not to affiliate with a movement, so Jews who feel unaffiliated or alienated for every reason feel they have a home here,” Rubin said. “I think it is very important for people to feel comfortable asking questions—that we’ll meet them wherever they are.”
Looking back over the past six years, with three different rabbis, Rubin says, “Every rabbi brings a unique set of skills, interests, and excitement to a synagogue community. We have had the sadness of losing Vicki, but we also have the advantage of having different perspectives.”
‘I think that what kept us together was that we were doing this new idea together. There was this unified focus that was just amazing.’
Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, who died in 2015, became Temple Micah’s third rabbi on April 1, 2012. Despite spending less than three years with the congregation, Tuckman brought much growth. “They called it the ‘Vicki effect,’ Cohen says. “When Vicki came, people gravitated toward her and wanted to be part of things she was part of.” So when her illness relapsed, Cohen says, “it was a horrible, tragic time for us as a congregation. Someone with such a magnetic personality and that role in the community—you have a tremendous loss. It was devastating for the community.”
Livingston emphasized the important role that Rubin, played during Tuckman’s illness and after her death. She wrote in an email: “When Rabbi Vicki was ill, the congregation really pulled together to pray for her and her family and to communicate our love and support to her and her family…Adrienne really kept us going, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, not just with her beautiful voice singing ‘Mi Shebeirach’ [a healing prayer and song by Debbie Friedman] but also by being both our cantor and our rabbi when we didn’t have a rabbi. She became our spiritual leader in so many ways during a really difficult time.”
Tuckman brought in new members, “a lot from other synagogues,” Wolkind says, and “we started having problems of how to seat everybody in the sanctuary. But, as Vicki said, ‘This should be your greatest problem, as compared to other synagogues who were having the reverse effect.’”
Cohen, the current president, connected with Temple Micah via Tuckman, who she had known through Jewish camping. Having grown up in a traditional synagogue in Philadelphia, she joined a similar one in New Jersey, but, she says, “I was not happy, and it was very expensive.” She remembers thinking, “There has to be something else out there where my kids can learn about their heritage and religion, and it doesn’t break the bank.”
Cohen was also happy to learn that Temple Micah’s religious school met on Tuesday afternoons rather than Sunday mornings, so it would not interfere with her children’s soccer playing. “I learned more about their values and their community, and it was the perfect fit for us,” Cohen said. “It is low key and low pressure.”
About Cohen, Leder says, “I believe she has brought a very modern approach,” Leder said. “She is a modern businesswoman and as a result she looks at strategies, at the overall position of the Temple, younger. The leadership of the Temple for a long time were all people who had been there for many years and were in their 60s and 70s, and even though they were vigorous, that’s not same thing as having people in their 30s and 40s who assume leadership positions. We needed that infusion of energy, of vision, to ensure the existence and sustainability and growth of Temple Micah.”
Temple Micah’s next rabbi, Roni Handler, stayed for two years, then last June Temple Micah hired Philadelphia Elisa Goldberg, who finds the congregation to be “in many ways…ahead of its time.”
“It never wanted to be big, to be a full-service synagogue,” Goldberg said. “It is a great community, but not a full-time community. It allows families to be engaged Jewishly in ways that they want to: they want to educate their families and have a place to celebrate holidays and celebrate life-cycle events. They don’t necessarily want the synagogue to be the center of their lives, but one of the centers.
“It’s affordable, accessible, and very welcoming of interfaith families, and it works well in today’s world. What Temple Micah is finding is a balance of meaningful Judaism that fits into their busy lives. People are there because they want to be there.”
About Goldberg, Leder says: “The congregation loves her style, her sense of humor, and her outlook.”
Also very important to both church and synagogue is the strong interfaith relationship that has grown between them with the sharing of a building.
Vamos, who has been pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville for 15 years, calls the relationship between the church and Temple Micah “that of siblings.” “We don’t think of Temple Micah as tenants of this place, not even as guests, but as kind of partners in our quest to proclaim religious truth and help people in their journey of faith and in their creating meaning,” he said. Rubin says of Vamos: “We are friends and colleagues. When Vicki was sick, our friends at the church were there for us, especially Jeff. We are a great example of, ‘You don’t have to believe the same things to appreciate one another.’ The level of interfaith cooperation at Temple Micah is, I think, a model for the whole world.”
The first seder shared by the two congregations was early in Greenspan’s tenure as rabbi. She developed a haggadah especially for the occasion. Joan Semenuk, who was the associate for pastoral ministry at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville for about 25 years and has lived in Yarmouth, Maine, for seven years, says, “It was a very happy occasion where we all learned something.”
The church also shares with Temple Micah a community center, called the Community Well. “It is oriented toward wellness of mind, body, spirit, and what ultimately we want to encourage is service, which is part of both traditions,” Vamos says. In this vein the two congregations held a service day to observe Martin Luther King’s birthday. And on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Vamos allows Temple Micah to use the front yard of his manse to build its sukkah, a temporary hut where Jews eat, and sometimes sleep, during the holiday.
Leder is particularly thankful to the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville where, he says, “we’ve operated on a handshake agreement. They are very dear to us and we could not have survived in our present business model without their housing us and their support for us.”
Sass-Connelly recalls “the incredible excitement in creating this little community.”
“It was just a group of people that said, ‘Hey, we want something different,’ and there we went—we just made it happen,” she said. “That it has lived this long is beyond belief. Of course we had different opinions and different ideas. I think that what kept us together was that we were doing this new idea together. There was this unified focus that was just amazing.”