SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Max Weisenfeld fondly remembers his childhood synagogue in upstate New York, with community seders, synagogue football games, his mother’s involvement in the Sisterhood and his parents’ long-time board service. Those memories have helped shape his own involvement at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, where he and his wife, Gale, have been members since 1991. Weisenfeld, who became TSTI president effective July 1, has taught for nearly 10 years in the Reform synagogue’s Linda and Rudy Slucker Religious School; he also finished his first year co-teaching an adult education course with Rabbi Daniel Cohen.
Throughout the years, Weisenfeld has served the TSTI community as a member of the preschool board, chaired the social action committee, was vice president of education and has served for many years on the finance committee, including several years as vice president. As his children, now ages 24 and 21, were completing their time at TSTI’s religious school, he began teaching Jewish studies there in the fourth grade. He also taught for seven years in the Hebrew High, which his children attended as well. His Jewish education is largely self-taught.
“I became interested in Jewish studies as my kids went through religious school,” Weisenfeld said. “I began studying with Rabbi Cohen and when TSTI was participating in the Synagogue 2000 transformation project, I started studying seriously, both at TSTI and on my own.”
Weisenfeld’s path to the religious school began with Project Morah, an intensive teacher training program through the Jewish Federation. His assigned mentor was Mindy Schreff, a Jewish educator who worked with him on his training for a year; she was later hired as TSTI’s education director.
The fourth-grade curriculum covers lifecycle events, Jewish holidays and family history, combining classroom and experiential learning. Students tackle questions and share thoughts about the meaning behind b’nai mitzvah, expectations of them as they grow up, and personal family rituals and history.
“Talking about their ancestors brings history alive, gives their whole family new meaning, and helps make the abstract more tangible to them,” he said.
This past year, Weisenfeld co-taught the first of a two-year adult course with Cohen through the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, administered locally by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Weisenfeld taught “The Rhythms of Jewish Living,” which covered Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, while Cohen taught “The Purposes of Jewish Living,” which explored the meaning behind Jewish rituals, holidays and observances. In the coming term, Weisenfeld will teach “Crossroads of Jewish History” and Cohen will cover “The Ethics of Jewish Living.” Enrollment opens in August.
Weisenfeld said that he teaches to connect spiritually to the community and to Judaism.
“I get so much out of my participation,” he said, “by giving something special to others that uplifts the ordinary. Helping people connect to purpose and meaning — even fourth-graders who are just moving from concrete to more abstract thinking — is so rewarding.”
Weisenfeld enjoys the questions his fourth-graders are asking and how their understanding of the world changes throughout the year. He keeps a shoebox in his classroom, into which the students can put cards with questions they have about anything, which he answers in class. He said that some of those questions are quite deep as students grapple with concepts such as the nature of God.
For his two-year term as president, Weisenfeld identified three areas where the synagogue can continue to grow and develop: civic engagement, meeting the needs of younger families and maintaining a strong foundation for the future.
“We’ve always been exemplary at social action but it is clear that TSTI must engage at a higher level within the wider community to address issues of moral importance,” he said. “We are ready and willing to do so. We must also find ways to give younger parents a voice at TSTI as well as paths through which to connect meaningfully to our community. Their priorities and what they find meaningful are very different today than when I was a preschool parent. They are our future.”
Weisenfeld also hopes to build greater participation within TSTI, from getting more volunteers on specific projects to deeper committee work. He hopes that his example of finding spiritual meaning through his involvement at TSTI provides a blueprint for others.
“You must always have a plan and goals, even if things change. I look forward to seeing how we can grow and build community, both inside and outside of our building’s walls,” he said.