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In Haddonfield, a new Jewish center as close as home

Haddonfield had about a dozen churches, but no synagogue or regular weekly gathering space to be Jewish. So, Ilise Feitshans did something about it, opening her own house as a place for prayer, education, services and celebration in the three-square-mile borough of 11,500 residents.

Cantor Scott Borsky stands in the living room of the new Haddonfield Jewish Center in South Jersey.
Cantor Scott Borsky stands in the living room of the new Haddonfield Jewish Center in South Jersey. Read moreAvi Steinhardt / For the Philadelphia Inquirer

Ilise Feitshans calls her 20 years of living Jewishly in Haddonfield "the big schlep."

When she wanted to attend synagogue, she had to drive to Cherry Hill. When she wanted her children to be trained for their bar and bat mitzvahs, she had to drive to Cherry Hill. When she wanted to celebrate the High Holy Days, she had to drive to Cherry Hill.

Though the commute to the town that is the epicenter of South Jersey's Jewish community wasn't a long one — a half-hour for Feitshans — the trip to worship took her away from the walkable hamlet she loves. Haddonfield had about a dozen churches, but no synagogue or regular weekly gathering space to be Jewish.

So, she did something about it. This year, the lawyer and scientist took fledgling steps toward developing a place for prayer, education, services and celebration in the three-square-mile borough of 11,500 residents, among whom, she estimates, 200 families are Jewish.  The new Haddonfield Jewish Center would be as close to Feitshans' home as it could possibly be: It's in her home.

"Judaism is about having a group of people around you that do stuff together," she said. "I felt like I was doing things alone, [separate] from the other Jews in Haddonfield. There was nothing to connect us."

A fellow at the European Scientific Institute in Archamps, France, the 61-year-old Feitshans spends considerable time overseas, where her husband is a synagogue caretaker, and she teaches and writes about nanotechnology law for the institute, a scientific training organization.  For more than a decade, she had been thinking about a center that could eventually become Haddonfield's first synagogue. In January, she called on Cantor Scott Borsky — of Cherry Hill — to help.

By March, her front door was open.

So far, the center has hosted a celebration of the spring festival of Purim, a National Day of Prayer observance, and a lecture on Jews in the American Revolution. Every event has been packed, but in a small house like Feitshans', packed means a standing-room-only crowd of 20 in the living and dining rooms.

Stephen Kessler, a lawyer who helped the center draft its bylaws, welcomes the addition to the community.

"My daughter is having her bat mitzvah in October, and for her to have an organization in the same town where she lives and be able to walk there for activities is a great thing," Kessler said. "It also tells her friends and neighbors, 'Hey, there are Jewish people who live in town, and here is where you can find us.'"

Nearly 57,000 Jews live in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties. A 2014 survey released by the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey identified Haddonfield as one of the largest Jewish population centers in Camden County, along with Cherry Hill and Voorhees.

As Jews emigrated from Philadelphia to Camden to the South Jersey suburbs, and the western, and then eastern, sections of Cherry Hill, synagogues and other Jewish institutions followed, said Scott Goldberg, a former Camden County freeholder who has lived in Haddonfield for 28 years and attends Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill.  The two-mile distance between his home and his synagogue, he said, hasn't been an issue.

"I don't really look at the town boundaries with any particular significance for my Judaism," said Goldberg, who was in the crowd for the center's Purim program.

Two years ago, Temple Beth El, a 40-minute drive away in Hammonton, N.J., began hosting a monthly Shabbat service and healing circle at the Haddonfield Friends Meeting in an effort to reach out to the local community. About 12 to 15 attended the gatherings, but the congregation held its last program at the meeting house in May. It is moving the monthly offerings to a new location in Cherry Hill, where the synagogue's Rabbi Abby Michaleski is opening a center for healing and spirituality.

"I know there are Jewish families in Haddonfield, Haddon Heights, and Collingswood that don't really have a public Jewish presence," Michaelski said, so the new Haddonfield center is "needed and a great opportunity."

When Feitshans arrived in Haddonfield in 1998, she went shopping for a synagogue, and quickly discovered that Cherry Hill was brimming with them. She had moved from New York, the nation's most populous Jewish center. Her father, an attorney, had co-founded a synagogue in Riverdale, Bronx, and her children attended a Hebrew school across the street from her apartment. For Jews who don't drive on the sabbath, New York is a walkable oasis.

But the death of her parents and a divorce sent Feitshans on a search for a quieter place to raise her son, Jay, and daughter Emalyn, then 12 and 8. She chose Haddonfield.

There, "I could go to a PTA meeting, to Starbucks, a historical preservation meeting," she said, "but when I wanted to be Jewish, I had to drive somewhere, and my neighbors who were Jewish did the same thing."

That Cherry Hill was right next door was "not the point," said Borsky, who has worked as a cantor at synagogues throughout South Jersey and is a chaplain at Virtua Hospitals in Marlton and Voorhees, and Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

"If you are proud of living in Haddonfield and proud of being Jewish, there should be a resource and connection in your hometown," he said.

In the early 2000s, Feitshans began lobbying for a menorah-lighting ceremony, similar to the borough's annual Christmas tree lighting in Nicholson Park.  In 2005, after a two-year campaign, Haddonfield officials agreed to add it to the holiday calendar.

"I told them, I'm not the Grinch, I don't want to steal Christmas," Feitshans said.  "I just want my share of the party."

Borsky was a natural to enlist for her plan to expand Jewish offerings beyond the annual lighting ceremony. For the last eight years, he has been helping Jews connect with their faith in his own unconventional way. He is founder of Synagogue Without Walls, a nonprofit that takes Judaism to people outside traditional worship spaces.

"People who don't belong to synagogue still need spirituality in their lives, and to feel the presence of God," Borsky said.

Now, he is meeting that need at the Haddonfield Jewish Center. For Purim, he gave a reading from the Book of Esther about the origins of the holiday. For the lecture on Jewish life in colonial times, he dressed up in a wig, frock coat, knickers and stockings. On July 22, the center will host an observance of Tisha B'Av, a commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

"It's like watching a baby being born," Rita Karpo, 80, said of the center. Karpo, an artist, is a founding member, and her work is displayed on its walls.

"Everybody is invited," she said. "You don't have to be Jewish. Sometimes people stay on their own side of the street, but [Feitshans] says, 'Come over. I welcome you to my heart, home and center.'"