I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski, director of Torah Links Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey at the Torah U Mesorah convention last week. He has clearly demonstrated that beyond College Campuses, interest in Judaism in Cherry Hill and other communities is alive and growing.
Here is an excerpt from the Jewish Action 2013 about Rabbi Serebroski’s community: (Note: that the community has grown more since this article.)
In 2000, as part of the outreach efforts of Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) of Lakewood, Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski began teaching in the community of Cherry Hill. He organized classes in people’s homes and at the local Jewish community center and public libraries—basically any place that would open its doors—and offered compelling presentations such as “If You Hated Sunday School, Then This One’s for You.” He invited prominent guest lecturers and held Shabbatons in various homes. People came. “The best ambassador is a satisfied customer,” says Rabbi Serebrowski. “One host would lead to another.”
As his following grew, so did the demand for his becoming a full-time community rabbi. “I was content living in Lakewood and traveling to Cherry Hill three or four times a week,” says Rabbi Serebrowski, who was part of a commuter kollel established by BMG. “I never thought we would have a shul or that I would wind up moving to Cherry Hill.” Since the 1970s, BMG has been sending young rabbinical students to establish kollels, with the goal of strengthening Jewish communities across the country. In the late 1990s, BMG began establishing “commuter kollels” in areas commutable from Lakewood.
This arrangement worked well for Rabbi Serebrowski, until one of his students—who lived five miles away from Rabbi Mangel’s established shul—made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. “He told me, ‘Rabbi, I’m all ready to keep Shabbos. If you start a minyan, I’ll never go back to work on Shabbos.’”
Rabbi Serebrowski consulted with his mentor, Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, BMG’s mashgiach, and Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, founder and rosh yeshivah of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. They both said, “You have no choice. You must move.”
He did. Rabbi Serebrowski looked for a house in a centrally located area in Cherry Hill. He started a minyan in his basement, initially recruiting friends from Lakewood to ensure he would have ten men. People said, “Host a minyan Friday night only, or just Shabbos morning; don’t overdo it.” But his determination won out. “If I’m moving because of Shabbos, there is going to be a Shabbos. And there’s going to be every minyan, every week.” Rabbi Serebrowski still recalls his excitement the first time twenty people from the community showed up at the minyan. Then twenty people began showing up every Shabbat and he no longer had to make “minyan phone calls.” It had become a solid minyan. Today, on a typical Shabbat, the shul attracts between sixty-five and one hundred participants.
Susan Lipson, fifty, grew up Jewishly unaffiliated in Cherry Hill. Today she’s an integral part of the growing Orthodox community in her hometown, which—religiously speaking—barely resembles the town she knew as a child. “I feel absolutely part of the community. I’ve met so many people on so many different religious levels, and we all get along. We have this amazing shul and don’t have enough room for people; it’s a great problem to have.”
“We have everything here that anyone could possibly need—a self-contained community where people can grow at all levels.”
Genna Landa, forty-six, is a software developer and one of Rabbi Serebrowski’s “regulars” who faithfully showed up for davening and Torah classes from the outset. “Rabbi Serebrowski exudes warmth, and that’s what attracts people. He’s a scholar, a savvy businessman and a warm, caring mensch. [In terms of doing mitzvot,] he doesn’t say, ‘You should do this,’ but [rather] ‘this is what should be done.’”
In 2010, the community purchased a two-acre property, now referred to as the Torah Links Center, or TLC, which currently houses the shul, Hebrew school and adult learning and social programs. TLC’s Hebrew school has more than thirty students and is growing. In the past year, TLC’s programs have touched over 1,000 individuals with varying levels of religious observance.
Cherry Hill’s spiritual infrastructure grows more solid each year. In 2009, Rabbi Mangel opened a community mikvah, which services fifty-five women each month. The community is also in the process of constructing an eruv, which was due to be completed by December 2013. “I see it as a tremendous catalyst for frum families from outside the area to move in,” says Rabbi Serebrowski, who was also instrumental in getting the local ShopRite to open a “kosher experience” section.
“I want to create a situation that when a family becomes frum, they don’t have to leave for a more established Orthodox community,” says Rabbi Serebrowski. Rabbi Mangel concurs. “Our goal is to build Yiddishkeit. We’re bringing a love for Judaism where, no matter what their level, people are growing.”