NORTH WILDWOOD – Rabbi Ron Isaacs played the last chord of a song on his acoustic guitar before asking the crowd of 40 at Lou Booth’s Little Theatre to close their eyes and listen to the sounds of the ocean.
“One of the ways that we hear God is through the wind,” he told them. The audience’s silence let blackbirds cawing and waves crashing on the North Wildwood beach be heard.
“I guarantee if I pull a piece of bread out it will be the seagulls that you hear,” Isaacs joked. Laughter pervaded the amphitheater as Isaacs began strumming another song.
On June 16, Beth Judah Temple’s “Shabbat by the Water” was the first outdoor Jewish service in the history of the Wildwoods.
Meaning “Receiving the Sabbath,” Kabbalat Shabbat is the weekly ritual of prayer and worship preceding the Jewish day of rest that begins Friday at sundown.
Isaacs led the hour-long evening service with traditional Hebrew songs about peace and righteousness.
“Imagine a day with no cellphones, no telephone, no computer, no TV. It’s just you and God and nature,” Isaacs said. “That’s what the Sabbath is all about.”
Connecting with nature was the synagogue’s goal for the beachside service, one of which the temple held in Cape May last summer.
“It’s all about tranquility, rest,” Isaacs said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, but it’s all about unplugging.”
Congregation members and vacationers made up the group of worshippers who sang along and played tambourine or hand drums.
“This is an amazing crowd for a Friday night for any place,” Isaacs said.
Attendee 17-year-old Tara Feldman of Harrison, N.Y. was surprised to find an active synagogue in the Wildwoods where she was vacationing with friends.
“It’s really a beautiful occasion,” said Feldman, who is enlisting in the Israeli Army upon graduating from Jewish day school.
“It warms my heart that we’ve got people I’m meeting for the first time,” Isaacs said. “I’m trying to keep a small synagogue growing.”
Small Synagogue Growing
Isaacs vacationed in Cape May for 25 years before learning Wildwood had a synagogue.
He had just retired after 40 years at Temple Shalom in Bridgewater when the owner of the Cape May hotel where he was vacationing told him Beth Judah needed a singing rabbi.
Every other week since 2015, the 69-year-old drives two hours from Bridgewater to Wildwood to serve as a part-time rabbi.
During the week, he is a music therapist for hospice patients.
“Rabbi is a very gracious and compassionate person,” said Karen Burke, president of Beth Judah Temple. “He really creates an environment where you leave here feeling good.”
Wildwood’s Beth Judah Temple is the only active synagogue in Cape May County. The congregation formed in 1915 by summer settlers from Woodbine, which was once a major Jewish settlement until factories closed after World War II.
In the 1950s, Beth Judah’s membership peaked at 200 families. Today, about 80 individuals are members. The temple sustains itself on membership dues and donations.
Temple Shalom’s congregation doubled in size to 550 families during Isaacs’ tenure. Burke hopes Isaacs will help Beth Judah grow as well.
“Shabbat by the Water” are one way Beth Judah is trying to draw new members.
“(Places of worship) have to adapt and change,” Burke said.
The 88-year-old synagogue at Pacific and Spencer avenues welcomes people of all faiths and beliefs, Isaacs said.
“Whatever your faith may be, it doesn’t matter at Beth Judah,” he said. “We are all about the values of life and being together as a family.”
Non-Jewish people often attend the Friday night services that draw between 12-35 people depending on the time of year, Burke said. Beth Judah currently holds Friday and Saturday services every other week, with two more beachside Shabbat services scheduled this summer.
Burke sees the temple as more than a place of worship.
“I really do believe in the idea to have a place, a part of the community that the doors are open, and that we can sit together, and be together, and work as a community,” she said.
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